Archive for June 2007
We’ve been talking about atheism and apologetics and argument. But Alvin Plantinga helpfully reminds us that the Christian’s starting point is faith:
[Christians] don’t postulate the existence of God, as if this were a scientific hypothesis of some kind. They don’t typically propose the existence of God (let alone other characteristic Christian doctrines, such as Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement) as a kind of hypothesis, designed to explain organized complexity or other phenomena. They don’t believe in God because God’s existence and activity is a good hypothesis, a good explanation of organized complexity in the world. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Moses didn’t say, “Hey, look at that weird bush! It’s on fire but isn’t burning up! And listen to those sounds coming out of it! What’s the best explanatory hypothesis I can think of? Perhaps there is an all-knowing, all-powerful wholly good being who created the world, and he is addressing me from that bush. Yes, that must be it, that’s a good explanation of the phenomena.” Christians do not reason as follows: “What is the best explanation for all that organized complexity and the rest of what we see about us? Well, let’s see, perhaps there is an omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good being who created the world. Yes that’s it; and perhaps this being is one of three persons, the other two being his divine son and a third person proceeding from the first two (yet there are not three Gods but one); the second person became incarnate, suffered, was crucified, and died, thus atoning for our sins and making it possible for us to have life and have it more abundantly. Right; that’s got to be it; that’s a dandy explanation of the facts.” What Christian would reason like that?
Hardly any. Rather, the traditional Christian thinks she knows these things by way of faith and its correlate, divine revelation through divinely inspired Scripture and/or the teaching of the church, the body of Christ. She doesn’t, of course, claim that these teachings constitute the best scientific explanation of some phenomena, anymore than we believe that there has been a past because we think this is a good scientific explanation of such present phenomena as wrinkled faces, dusty books, rusted automobiles and crumbling mountains. (Of course once she knows, as she thinks, that God has created the heavens and the earth she can use that fact to explain what might otherwise be inexplicable.)” — Alvin Plantinga
This faith isn’t the blind leap of fideism, but it is a quiet confidence in God’s goodness and faithfulness. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good!
I’ve just finished the book Freakonomics, and it was very interesting and thought-provoking. Seeing how an economist approached life’s situations and problems made me wonder if we could construct an economic argument (speaking in broad terms of cost and incentive rather than merely money) against atheism and for God’s existence. By its nature such an argument wouldn’t be conclusive, but then most arguments for God’s existence function that way — encouraging the faithful but not sealing the deal for non-believers. Here’s how I think we could develop such an argument:
Let’s assume for a moment that there is no God. Does this fit the data that we see? Disregarding the conventional wisdom that religion is an “opiate,” I think we can actually argue that if there is no God, religion is economically unsustainable. If there is no God and man has evolved, then belief in God and the practice of religion consist entirely of costs and no incentives (since there is no God responding to your prayers, nor providing any future hope or joy or reward). This creates a powerful incentive not to believe in God — it is a perfect waste of time and energy. From an economic standpoint we would hardly expect religion to have developed in the first place, and from both an economic and evolutionary standpoint we would hardly expect religion to persist. As supporting evidence, monkeys in zoos don’t form cargo cults; instead, it seems quite obvious that if they worship anything, it is simply themselves. But if monkeys are so sensible about how much of an economic and evolutionary waste religion is, why do so many humans practice religion? Our hypothesis (there is no God) simply does not fit the data.
Let’s assume for a moment that there is a God and that man is uniquely created to fellowship with and worship God. The atheist is quick to point out that this hypothesis does not fit the data either; where are all the indications of God’s fellowshipping with man? Why does God allow such confusion among men as to who God is and how to fellowship with him? Putting aside for a moment the fact that we see God’s fingerprints everywhere, let’s agree with the atheist that if our hypothesis were true we would very much expect to fellowship with God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.
But now let’s assume that there is a God, that man is uniquely created to fellowship with and worship him, but that there is some estrangement between man and God. This, then, seems to explain the data! The fingerprints of God can be identified in his careful and thoughtful design of the world. Our being created for the unique purpose of fellowship can be seen in the fact that humans alone are able to reason and communicate. There is now a great economic incentive to believe in God, since there is great joy and blessing to be had as his children; and in fact, it is precisely where Christianity has most flourished that civilization and freedoms have most thrived. Yet this estrangement also creates a great economic incentive to disbelieve in God, or to fabricate one’s own gods and religion, which explains the great confusion man has about God. This estrangement suggests that God might allow himself to be hidden from our sight to a certain degree, but also that he might be working to reconcile us to him — so there is even a suggestion of the gospel!
There are, of course, ways that this argument needs to be further developed. More work needs to be done to demonstrate that religion truly has no economic incentive if God does not exist. And we have assumed one type of God here (a personal and good and gracious God who pursues fellowship with man), but the atheist will be quick to point out that this is a fallacy of limited choice; perhaps there is another type of God who delights in causing chaos — does this explanation fit the data? To the Christian it is certain that it would not, but for apologetic purposes this argument must be developed.
And of course, we should not see God as a mere hypothesis. Stay tuned for Friday’s quote.
In last Thursday’s post I described the atheist’s world was a “small little world.” In his book Orthodoxy (read online), G. K. Chesterton brilliantly describes atheism as a sort of painfully ingrown madness that sees all the world through the petty lens of a few mechanical rules, and therefore utterly fails to see the bigness and beauty and life and joy in that world:
The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. . . .
As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, . . . and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
Earlier Chesterton writes that “the poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” We need to live as poets, tasting and seeing God’s goodness and grace. And our practice of apologetics ought to point to that goodness and grace and joy in Christ.
An atheist once told me that he had tried his best to prove that God didn’t exist, but failed. The best he could go on was his own intuition, which he was sure was right. I expressed surprise that he had failed in his attempts; given his presuppositions, it seemed to me he could easily prove that God didn’t exist. Here is my proof of the non-existence of God:
- There exists a god. (assumption)
- A god is any being which is strictly superior to and has comprehensive authority over all of reality. (definition)
- Humans exist and are autonomous. (premise)
- A human possesses the power of self-determination of his thoughts and actions, exercised in exclusion to the god’s power of shaping reality. [from (3)]
- Human self-determination precludes the god’s strict superiority and comprehensive authority over humans. [from (4)]
- Therefore, it is false that a god exists. (by contradiction)
The catch, of course, is #3; humans are not autonomous. Particularly in today’s age, where unfettered personal liberty is an unquestioned good, and where the experience of having a true king is so utterly foreign, the idea that we are not autonomous is a very hard pill to swallow. But this also exposes the fact that the real reason the atheist is committed to opposing God is because he cannot bear to think that he is not the captain of his soul.
God places very real demands upon us that run counter to our sense of self-importance and our desire for self-interpretation and self-determination. While God has granted us some degree of freedom, he has not released us from responsibility nor given us real autonomy. We will all at length be held accountable to him, on his terms rather than ours. It cannot be otherwise, for God is God: “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
How then shall we live? We are responsible and accountable to God. Far better to live and die on his terms than to attempt to do so on ours. Far better to enjoy God and the gifts he has filled this earth with, than to enjoy the gifts alone with a fearful expectation of judgment. Yet all of us rebel and chafe under God’s authority; we all need a savior, both to remove our guilt and to empower us to submit to God’s authority with joy. Praise God for providing a perfect savior in Jesus Christ!
And how shall we do science, or interpret anything for that matter? God has revealed himself to be a sovereign and orderly creator. So, far from wondering whether the meaningfulness of our observations is frustrated by whatever lies outside of our ability to see, we have a real and genuine confidence in the reality and orderliness of what we see. More than that, we have a real mandate and even responsibility to discover, responsibly use, and enjoy what God has made and done. All the world points to God, for all the world is fashioned and sustained by him.
The Bible also stirs our imagination by explaining our connection to God as his children. Our new standing is legal, but it is also personal and practical. Marriage and adoption both involve legal unions but ones that are intended to create relationships that are far more than legal contracts. Imagine a married couple who only related at a legal level without love. Their marriage would be no different than a business partnership. What if adoptive parents only related to their new child in terms of their legal obligations to feed, clothe, and educate him? The words “I love you” would never be uttered. This would be horrific because the new legal status is intended to be the context in which a deeper, fuller relationship flourishes. Marital and parent-child relationships are not less than legal; they are much more!
In the same way, our reconciliation with God gives us a relationship with him that should alter the way we respond to everything. God is now my Father and I am his child. He looks on me with favor. I am the object of his attention and affection. I have access to his care. He blesses me with his resources. He offers ongoing forgiveness and cleansing as I struggle with sin. He promises never to leave or forsake me. He makes a commitment to finish the work of change he has begun in me.
— Tim Lane and Paul Tripp, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, p. 159.
Our forgiveness and justification lies at the very heart of our salvation, but our adoption as God’s own children is by far the richest and deepest privilege we enjoy.
In recent months, Doug Wilson has wielded his pen against the new atheism in several ways:
Wilson wrote a series of posts on his weblog in response to Sam Harris’s book, Letter to a Christian Nation. These posts are no longer available for reading online; they have been collected into the book Letter from a Christian Citizen.
He has similarly reviewed and responded on his blog to Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. These posts are still available on his blog and you can read them here: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapters 7 and 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18 and Chapter 19.
Wilson makes two apologetic moves that you should watch closely. First, he consistently and very deftly pieces apart the atheist’s small little world and shows it to have no foundation, and therefore no meaning, and therefore no force or life or joy. This is well-played presuppositional apologetics. Second, and more importantly, in his personal interaction with Hitchens it is clear that Wilson does not see apologetics as an end in itself. Rather, he repeatedly uses apologetics as a means of disarming his opponent so that he can preach the gospel. It is vital that our practice of apologetics always points to Christ.