What Our Objections to God Say about Us

Most objections to Christianity, or to religion more broadly, are hardly unique. So, encountering this fairly typical description of six “paths to atheism” seems as good an opportunity as any to address them.

I’ve come to realize that our objections to God’s existence tell us more about ourselves than about Him. Most can be boiled down to three basic realities of our psychology and the human condition:

1. The limits of the human brain to fully comprehend the world,

2. The human inclination to doubt, and

3. The human inclination to sin.

First, the limits of the human brain. The author of this post, blogger Chad Becker, begins with the question of God’s infiniteness. He simply cannot wrap his mind around the idea that God has existed for all of time. It is so obvious as to be cliche. Thus, this is his first path to atheism.

But is it really easier for us to fathom a point in time at which there was no universe and no God? Either way, we cannot comprehend God’s nature in the same sense that we can comprehend the nature of an orange. The part can never grasp the whole, and we are most certainly but a part of the universe we inhabit. Even if my thumbnail possessed consciousness, along with a vague awareness that it was part of something bigger than itself, could my thumbnail ever fully comprehend the human body in all its intricate complexity? Certainly not. But it would make even less sense for my thumbnail to cling to the belief that it was all there was, denying the existence of the greater body.

Becker also admits to being unable to fathom heaven (point six). To which I would respond that neither can anyone else. But saying “I’ve never been to the center of the earth; I just can’t imagine what it would be like there,” is not to admit that the center of the earth does not exist.

Religion is not the only field to offer seemingly incomprehensible conclusions; just look at science. People struggled to accommodate themselves to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, Newton’s physics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. When we study the world from a scientific perspective, as from a religious perspective, there exists the same condition of knowing something without fully comprehending it. I know that time and space are relative, but my brain still struggles with what that means. I know that God is infinite, but I am likewise at a loss to articulate all the implications of this concept. Don’t even ask for a precise explanation of the trinity. Likewise, even the best, most brilliant scientists struggle to explain the origins of human life or the exact nature of matter. We are time and again forced to admit that there is much we do not know. Thus, Christianity has always acknowledged the existence of mystery. The fact that we cannot comprehend something does not make it untrue.

Secondly, doubt. It is in many ways a mark of intelligence and maturity to be willing to doubt what one has been taught, especially when one encounters different teachings. The alternative would be to refuse to consider opposing views, insisting that one already possesses all the answers and therefore everyone else must be wrong.

So what are we to make of all the religious diversity we encounter? Becker admits this to be the true source of his doubt (point two). He realizes that if he were born into a Mormon family, he would likely be a Mormon. If he had been born in India, he would likely be a Hindu. Religion, then, is just each unique culture claiming an unfounded monopoly on truth. So what if Christians have a book they use to justify their claims? Islam has a book. Mormonism has a book. In Becker’s words, “Nothing distinguishes one religion’s claims as more valid on an evidence based level.”

While this is certainly a common objection in the modern, globalized age, it is not too difficult to dispense with. One can start by pointing to all the similarities between the world’s great religions. Doesn’t the fact that certain teachings crop up in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism support their validity? Take, for instance, the obligation to care for the weak and needy, the understanding of man as a basically flawed being, the need to cultivate virtue, and the possibility of life after death.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes:

If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own… Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two make five.”

The commonality of many belief systems from around the world supports natural law theory — the idea that we can use reason, common sense, and experience to arrive at a set of universal moral norms. Any child who has every screamed “That’s not fair!” has appealed to the idea of a universal code of human behavior that all should be able to recognize (though all don’t always follow). It is as if a moral code had been inscribed upon our hearts, a “conscience” if you will. If there is a universal, natural law (beyond mere human laws, which will vary), then there must be a universal law-giver, and this we know as God.

And yet while the world’s diverse cultures have long subscribed to a set of strikingly similar norms of behavior, they are not all the same, and they are not equal. In Hinduism, widows were once burned to death. Various cultures have practiced some form of human sacrifice. Around the world today, there are certain cultures that continue to victimize women and children. The Gospel of Matthew instructs “by their fruits you shall know them.” It is no coincidence that the very idea of human rights and women’s rights first emerged in a Christian context. Christians were the first to oppose infanticide, establishing the first orphanages to care for unwanted children. While some have perverted scripture to attempt to justify slavery, as Becker notes, Christians were also the first to abolish slavery entirely on the grounds that it was in fact anti-Christian.

While similar to other religions in its basis in natural law, Christianity is also unique. It is the only religion to claim to have been founded by God Himself. Muhammad is to Muslim’s but a prophet; Buddha and Confucius were to their followers but wise teachers. Yet Christians believe that Jesus was and is God, the Word made Flesh. No other religion has anything like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No other religion can provide as firm a foundation for human rights. By becoming human Himself, God endowed humanity with a unique dignity and worth. This fact should be enough to make us pause and consider Christianity as more than just one of many moral systems from which to choose.

People often criticize Christians for trying to convert people of other faiths, as if such an action was based in a negative judgment of their existing faith. But imagine we are all in a river (life), headed for a great waterfall (death). The end seems inevitable, except there is a narrow stream – partially obscured by branches – leading off to the safety of land. Would we criticize someone for venturing out into the raging waters to help others reach the stream of salvation? Or would we more criticize the one who contents himself with his own salvation, letting others choose their own way though knowing it leads to ruin? The latter course is “tolerant,” the former loving.

Becker’s fourth and fifth paths to atheism stem from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Bible, which is not one book but a library of seventy-two books, varying greatly in their authors, contexts, and purposes, collected and compiled over the centuries. A mass of writing such as this cannot be expected to be fully understood without a great deal of careful study. If one is intent to cherry-pick verses, it can be easily misread and misunderstood. (This is why the Catholic Church has always pointed to the need for authority in interpreting scripture, and why Luther’s Reformation wrought so many conflicting interpretations.)

However, it is impossible to consider the Bible as a whole and miss the essential message of God’s love for humanity and the importance of compassion and repentance. In his effort to instruct humanity, God did not begin by unloading the entire truth in one sitting, just as we would not begin instructing a child in Shakespeare and Einstein. We would first prepare a foundation, instilling basic concepts of reading, writing, and arithmetic. A child passes through many teachers in his life to prepare him to for his ultimate career, just as God sent many prophets to prepare the way for His Son. In the Gospel, Jesus clearly states that he is establishing a new covenant, not to replace God’s covenant with Abraham, but to complete and perfect it.

The third human obstacle to understanding God is a big one – sin. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, the very first sin sprang from doubts about God’s ultimate goodness (the idea that He might be selfishly hoarding wisdom) and the desire to be like Him: to possess knowledge of good and evil. At the root of all sin is rebellion against God; specifically the desire to replace His judgment with our own. Returning to natural law, C.S. Lewis states:

These, then, are the two points I want to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious desire that they should behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.

A consequence of human sinfulness is that we live in a pretty messed-up world, a world where even professing Christians do terrible things – not because they are Christian, but because they are human beings, and therefore fallen. The schoolyard bully knows full-well that it is wrong to pick on the weaker kids. He does so anyway. But we humans are also masters of self-delusion. Often at the earliest sensation that what we want to do is wrong, we come up with elaborate justifications, even telling ourselves that it is all for the best.

In Becker’s third point, he criticizes Christians as narcissistic for attributing all the good in their lives to God, as if God cared more about them scoring an “A” on that test or landing a new promotion than the welfare of the millions of people in the world left to suffer. Certainly Christians are not immune from the very human vices of narcissism and vanity. All that is good in our lives does ultimately trace back to God, but what the world calls good is not what God calls good. For example, most people long for riches and would thus celebrate an increase in their personal fortunes. But from the perspective of one’s soul, riches may impede the path to heaven and eternal life; thus they can be bad. As Christians, we should perhaps begin to thank God more for the challenges and obstacles in our lives, especially those that provide opportunities for spiritual growth, and get rid of this notion that God just wants us to be happy and comfortable.

All this talk of sin makes atheists like Becker especially uncomfortable, as it leads to the most abhorrent of states – guilt. This is no surprise, as the creed of postmodernism may as well be “always feel good about yourself, no matter what!” How terrible to sense that one may not be as good as one would like to believe! How awful to imagine that one’s sexual desires should sometimes (as in the case of homosexuality and adultery) be suppressed and not indulged! How can man ever be truly happy if he is always obsessed with following rules?!

To Becker, there should really only be one rule – “just be a nice person.” In this very popular line of thinking, we should stop preaching our “thou shalt not’s” and just leave people alone for goodness’-sake. Remove the warning lights and the guardrails. Because the last thing we would ever want is to make someone feel like they are not “just fine the way they are,” like they have the potential to be so much more, like this life is not the end. Becker finds the very concept “gross,” and he is glad to be free of it. But returning to the analogy of the waterfall, is it “nice” to watch as people float by towards the waterfall, oblivious to the impending disaster? Or is it at best moral laziness and cowardice? The path of repentance is uncomfortable to be sure, but the path of sin does not lead to happiness, in this life or the next.

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Dear Western Civilization, Please Stop Hating Yourself

The challenges confronting America and the West are manifold and well-documented, but the biggest problem we face today is a crisis of confidence. Any problem is surmountable if you have the courage to look at it with clear eyes and act on principle. This is how we built the Hoover Dam, defeated the Nazis, secured civil rights for all races, and put a man on the Moon. But if you lack this resolve – if you are determined to blindfold yourself to the truth and wallow in apathy and self-doubt – then even the simplest task becomes nearly impossible. A gust of wind could blow you over, a pinprick result in paralysis.

This crisis of self-doubt is not confined to one country; rather it afflicts western civilization as a whole. According to Samuel Huntington, a civilization is the largest unit by which people can be divided. Beyond civilization, we all belong to the human race. Within civilization exist various nation-states and ethnic groups. Even within these states and groups, we divide further by party and ideology.

Historically, western civilization has rested on two pillars: Greco-Roman rationalism and Christianity. The first gave us the confidence to use reason to understand the world, thus freeing ourselves from superstition and fatalism. The embrace of reason led to the most advanced classical civilization in the world, and then the most powerful empire. It gave us democracy and the rule of law.

But it was not enough. For despite the technical, military, and legal prowess of both the Greeks and the Romans, such evils as infanticide and slavery were widespread. It took the dawn of Christianity to take the moral ideals first developed in Judaism and make them universal. Christianity offered protection to the weakest members of society – the disabled, the young, the ill – but it did even more than that. Christianity put forth the powerful and previously unimaginable idea that the poorest members of society were actually the most beloved by God. Women and slaves understandably flocked to this new creed. More surprising was the fact that even the powerful, who had the most to lose and least to gain, were also attracted to its teachings. The triumph of Christianity was near total in the West. Today it is the world’s most popular religion, while virtually no one still worships Jupiter or Zeus.

While some might have predicted a conflict between the Christian faith and Greco-Roman reason, the two were beautifully synthesized in the Middle Ages by such intellectual geniuses as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Classical scholarship and legal traditions endured, despite the fall of the Roman Empire and near-constant invasions from Muslims, Vikings, and other groups. Beginning in the Late Middle Ages, Europe became the birthplace of modern commerce, science, and industry. Europeans went from being relatively poor and insignificant vis-à-vis their Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors to dominating the globe by 1900, when 90% of the world was controlled by Europeans and their descendants. The twentieth century continued to see advances in technology and science, as diseases were cured and standards of living rose. But it also witnessed two destructive world wars, both originating in Europe, and the ascendancy of communism as a global threat to freedom.

Still, considering its many gifts to mankind, one would expect people in the West to be proud of their civilization’s accomplishments and eager to secure its blessings for their posterity. Instead, we see the opposite. Westerners are made to feel guilt and shame for the misdeeds and alleged shortcomings of their ancestors. Violence and greed – once understood to be flaws inherent in human nature – are now viewed by many as uniquely western, while non-western societies past and present are mythologized as utopian Edens.

European colonial powers certainly had their share of injustices. The Atlantic Slave Trade, the destruction of Native American tribes, and the use of forced labor in Africa were all inexcusable. But so was the indigenous slavery and warfare practiced by both Africans and Native Americans, by no means the “noble savages” of the romantic imagination. It has become routine every October to charge Christopher Columbus with crimes against humanity, but not Tlacaelel, the Aztec leader who sacrificed at least 4,000 and as many as 84,000 victims to dedicate a new temple.

The fact that someone is born into western civilization is no guarantee that each individual will accept or practice all of its values. Every human society has its share of deviants and criminals, as well as its heroes and saints. Consider the examples of King Leopold of Belgium and Bartolome de las Casas. The former was responsible for as many as 10 million deaths in the Congo, while the latter famously defended the human rights of Native Americans in Spanish colonies. Much less noted than the crimes of certain individuals and groups is the fact that the West was the first civilization to abolish slavery and give all people equal protection under the law.

But things are different now. We have lost ourselves. People who still champion the superiority of western values are accused of bigotry, racism, and intolerance (ironic for sure, as tolerance and equality are some of the western values its proponents seek to protect). Europe is told it must fling open its doors to millions of immigrants who do not share their values, some coming with the stated goal of replacing western civilization with Islam. Yet we would never demand that Saudi Arabia, China, or Pakistan open its doors to European immigrants (not that many westerners would want to live under sharia law or communism).

None of this makes any sense unless one understands the depths of western self-doubt and self-loathing, the roots of which are brilliantly traced in an article by Jonathan Pidluzny. The actions currently being taken or avoided by western governments appear suicidal to the outside observer. But suicide is the only rational outcome of irrational self-hatred.

Open borders and mass immigration are perhaps the clearest signs of disdain for the West by Western elites. Women in European countries are now being instructed to change the way they dress for fear of provoking harassment. Free speech is censored. Unspeakable crimes are brushed under the rug.

Where else do we see this self-hatred? First in our schools, where both world history and U.S. history curricula downplay western achievements while dwelling on their faults. This is not to suggest that we whitewash the past or replace serious inquiry with cultural propaganda, just that context is important. Yes, European colonial empires witnessed many abuses. So too did the United States, the first nation to break free from European control and the current leader of the West. But so did the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Turks. These empires saw the slaughter of entire cities, the sacrifice of innocent victims to appease angry gods, and the terrible torture of rivals. Women in western civilization had to fight long and hard for equal rights. But women in Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilization were considered little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. They are still undervalued and marginalized today.

We see this self-hatred in the climate change movement. Forget the fact that industrialization has lifted millions of people out of poverty and eradicated diseases that once decimated entire communities. Forget that western nations have done much in recent decades to reduce pollution and conserve the environment. We are made to feel irrationally guilty over our “carbon footprint.” We are offered different ways of atoning for our sins, few of them rational. We may purchase green products like electric cars that are in fact no better for the environment than traditional ones. We are told we must transfer billions of dollars from western taxpayers to corrupt governments in developing countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. It makes sense to blame the West for imperialism in the Philippines, but not a typhoon.

We see this self-hatred in the restrictions placed on our natural rights to speech and religion. We are not to criticize other cultures or religions, even when they explicitly call for violence against non-believers, apostates, and blasphemers. We are not to notice when people of other cultures commit crimes or propagate injustice. Instead, we are to search our speech for microaggressions and our subconscious for unrecognized biases. Even if we disavow racism and come from modest backgrounds, we are told to feel guilty over the “privilege” bestowed by our skin color.

We see this self-hatred in the fight against Islamic terrorism, the greatest external threat to freedom today. We are told by our leaders that if the terrorists hate us, we must have done something to deserve it. It is not the terrorists who are to blame, but rather our past foreign policy mistakes, our reluctance to open our borders, or our perverse attachment to the Bill of Rights. Or maybe it’s just an 800-year grudge over the Crusades. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with Islam, and to suggest as much would be bigoted. Instead of killing the terrorists who wish us harm, we are told to shut up and disarm. Hillary Clinton blamed the murder of four Americans at Benghazi on an amateur YouTube video criticizing the prophet Muhammad (who, to anyone who has ever studied his life, certainly merits criticism). This blaming of the West for terrorist attacks on the West is tantamount to blaming a victim of domestic violence for provoking her attacker, or the rape victim for her short skirt. In fact, it seems impossible for critics of the West to find blame anywhere outside of the West.

We must understand the roots of this crisis if we are to have any hope of reversing it. Jonathan Pidluzny identifies five causes of western self-doubt and self-loathing: modern science, which made us doubt anything that could not be empirically demonstrated; romanticism, which elevated subjective feeling over objective reason, democratic egalitarianism, which led to excessive individualism and isolation from the body politic; democratic materialism, which transformed us into mundane pleasure-seekers; and the erosion of the liberal arts, which no longer satisfy man’s thirst for higher knowledge and meaning.

How can these forces be countered? How can the West regain its confidence? These are difficult questions, but there are certain things we should not do. We do not need to export our civilization to foreign lands through Iraq- and Afghanistan-style nation building. Clearly this does not work well. We do not need Donald Trump-style populism. One real danger of elite disdain for the West is that it pushes people to embrace just such demagoguery. We should also not forget the real contributions made by other civilizations, or dismiss their potential to contribute to our future advancement. Having confidence in ourselves does not mean putting others down, or forcing them to change.

Pidluzny hopes for a revival of the liberal arts as a starting point. I agree that such a movement is needed, though the recent reaction on college campuses against freedom of speech leaves me doubtful that it can be spearheaded by the university. Our culture needs nothing short of a modern renaissance, a rediscovery of the habits and values that made our civilization great. I know such revitalization is possible. The only question is, will we have to endure another Dark Age to reach it?

A Question for Atheists

In 2012, a Gallup International poll found that 12% of global respondents identify as “convinced atheists.” In China, the figure is 47%, followed by Japan at 31% and France at 29%. In the United States, self-identified atheists have risen from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012. While this is still a very small figure, atheism predominates in certain metropolitan areas and career fields. A friend of mine living in Seattle recently expressed her frustration over the intolerance of the secular Left: “Up there, people think you’re an idiot if you believe in God.”

Make no mistake, even the historically religious United States is becoming increasingly atheistic. Since 2005, America has seen best-sellers on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others. Religion is routinely mocked on social media and television, while atheism is portrayed as mature, rational, and tolerant.

America’s religious divide is also generational. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) are the least religious demographic in America, and they are bucking past trends by becoming less religious as they age. Even writing from the Bible Belt, I have observed signs of a rising atheism amongst my high school students. A couple years ago, I was surprised when nine or ten students in a single class decided, unprovoked, to proclaim their atheism (I would never question students about their personal religious beliefs; we happened to be discussing the role of religion in early societies). Their line of reasoning went something like this: “Religion is great for people who find comfort in all that ‘God’ stuff, but as an educated person, I know better.”

Which leads to my question for atheists: where do you get your faith?

I understand people who believe in God, but have been turned off by organized religion. Periodic scandals, perceptions of moral hypocrisy, and revulsion over past misdeeds may be enough to discourage potential followers. On the other hand, a culture steeped in secularism or just general apathy might prevent someone from going to church, though they still believe in God and even pray on occasion. These are the unaffiliated believers, and their position (though not one I would endorse) makes a certain sense. It offers a starting point, at least, from which to move towards a deeper encounter with God.

I also understand people who feel that we humans simply cannot reach definitive conclusions regarding the divine, including some agnostics. Catholicism teaches that the exact nature of God is a mystery beyond humanity’s power to fully comprehend. The Trinity and the Incarnation cannot be rationalized without losing an essential part of their Truth. This makes some people uncomfortable, and they would rather not even attempt to understand something beyond the limits of human reason.

But to look out at creation and proclaim: “I know there is no Creator!” is beyond me. How do you know?

Imagine that I were to place a sealed up cardboard box in front of you and ask you what was inside it. You could shake, smell, and feel the box, but not open it.

If you were to hear clucking and the flutter of feathers, you would rationally suspect that the box contained a chicken. Even if no noises were to come from the box, you would be unable to rule out the possibility that it contained something very light or inanimate.

An atheist is someone who looks at the box and confidently proclaims: “There is nothing inside that box!”

Really? How do you know?

Merriam-Webster defines atheism as “a disbelief in the existence of divinity” or “the doctrine that there is no deity.” Both positions contradict logic and experience, but the latter is just absurd. How can one ever be 100% convinced that God does not exist?

Here’s another popular thought experiment. Imagine the world is made up of little cardboard boxes. You open the first to discover a red ball. You open the second and find another red ball. This goes on for hundreds and even thousands of boxes—all contain red balls. Just as you are about to open the millionth box, I ask you what it contains. “A red ball,” would be your likely answer. But what if the millionth box contains a white ball? You have no way of knowing until you open it.

Atheism is thus unscientific. It presupposes not only that mankind has never discovered support for the existence of a Creator, but that it will never discover evidence of a Higher Power at any point in the future. In fact, much of science already points to the existence of God. The most persuasive of these arguments is the sheer improbability of life in the universe. Scientists used to believe that the only necessary conditions for a planet to support life were size and distance from a star of sufficient warmth. But they have since discovered a multitude of other conditions, the absence of any one of which would render life on Earth impossible. It’s almost as if Earth was designed for life.

Atheists cannot explain the origin of the universe. The Big Bang theory supports the idea of a Creator by positing that all matter originated from a single point. In fact, if one little thing had gone differently at the moment of the Big Bang, none of the elements would have been able to form.

Atheists cannot explain the origin of life. They would rather believe that life originated from an improbably lucky accident or outer space (which, if so, how did it get there?) than entertain the possibility of a creator God.

Ironically, atheism is not without its crowned saint – Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution has long been atheism’s best argument or most cherished dogma, depending on your point of view. Never mind that atheists cannot explain how the universe or life originated; they claim to know that human life evolved from the most basic single-celled organism over millions of years by pure chance.

While persuasive on some level, this argument still has several holes. We can observe natural selection at work, or the process by which a species better adapts to its environment. But, to use the classic example, the fact that more black moths survived to reproduce that white moths in industrial Britain does not in any way refute the existence of God. What we have never observed is a species becoming another species. Currently the best theory as to the mechanism of evolution on a macro scale is random genetic mutation. But this explanation cannot account for the fact that most genetic mutations are harmful and/or can’t be passed on to offspring. The theory of Intelligent Design seems a persuasive alternative to me, but to many atheists this position is no better than Creationism; to be taken seriously, one must deny any role for God at the outset.

So what explains atheism’s appeal, especially among the young, urban, and educated?

My guess is that some people are just confused. They would like to believe in God, but falsely believe God has been disproved by science. Others are apathetic; they just don’t care. But for others, atheism fits nicely into their secular worldview. If there is no God, then I get to be my own god. If I was made not by a Creator, but by a series of lucky mutations, then there is nothing to keep me from remaking myself in the image of my choosing. I get to set my own rules, unconstrained by divine teaching or natural limits. Furthermore, I get the elitist’s satisfaction of believing myself superior to the ignorant masses, along with the occasional chuckle at their expense.

Atheists like to point to all the wars that have been fought over religion, but they ignore the far greater number that have been fought over just this sort of hubris, including the worst tragedies of the 20th century. The Nazis and the Soviets both rejected God, whether explicitly or implicitly, and decided to take human evolution into their own hands. They sought to remake not just society but mankind himself, with disastrous consequences. In the case of the Nazis, they even quoted Darwin in the process.

This is not to say that atheists are bad people—far from it. There can be and have been many good atheists or agnostics, just as there have been religious people who nevertheless committed heinous crimes. To worship is natural, and so is to doubt. But to categorically deny the existence of a Creator is unscientific, and atheism requires far greater faith than Christianity. My question once again for atheists is: where do you get your faith?