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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Giving Up Our Natural Rights for Artificial Ones

It’s been a long time since there has been this much fundamental disagreement in America over the nature of liberty. Judging by recent events, many Americans no longer value our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Where did this disregard originate, what worldview underlies it, and how can we fight it? These are the questions I plan to address in this post.

First, there is a reason that freedom of speech and religion are combined in the First Amendment. While freedom of religion involves the right to pray and worship as one chooses, religion is not a strictly private matter. It is not enough to say, “Believe what you want, just keep it to yourself,” a new twist on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Religious freedom is primarily the freedom to live according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. We don’t surrender this right when we step out of our mosques, churches, synagogues, or private homes. Even atheists and agnostics have the right to come to their own conclusions on moral issues, to not be compelled by the state to participate in behavior they find morally questionable, and to voice their opinions on matters of conscience.

So how can Americans, whose country’s very existence was founded on the belief that we are endowed with rights by the “Law of Nature and of Nature’s God,” be so quick to denounce and even condemn them?

I believe the answer to this question is two-fold. First, a people will only voluntarily surrender a right if they believe doing so is necessary to secure a greater, more important right. Second, one’s conception of liberty depends on one’s understanding of truth itself. There is a deeper moral and philosophical conflict underlying our political debates.

Every high school government class is likely to contain some discussion of how certain rights can often conflict with others. It is the role of the law to define and adjudicate where one person’s rights end and another’s begin. For example, one could reasonably renounce the “right” to steal from one’s neighbor in exchange for the right to be secure in one’s own possessions. But this only shows that the right to steal is not a God-given, inalienable one, or else it could not by definition be forfeited.

What “rights”, then, are so important that a bill entitled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” could possibly become the subject of a national debate? Since when did religious freedom become controversial?

To hear the outcry in the media, one would think RFRA proponents were claiming the unlimited right to religion, but this is clearly not the case. One has only to read the text of the law, going back to the original bill signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993. RFRA laws simply state that if the government is going to impinge upon your right to religion, it must have a very good reason to do so, a “compelling government interest.”

For example, it is illegal in this country for people under twenty-one to consume alcoholic beverages. Yet children as young as seven receive Holy Communion at Mass. The government has correctly judged that keeping a child from having a sip of what many would consider wine (but that Catholics regard as Christ’s holy blood) is not a compelling enough interest to prevent the practice of a crucial aspect of the Catholic faith.

On the other hand, it is easy to envision a scenario in which the government might reasonably conclude that one’s right to freedom of religion does not include the right to polygamous marriage (as in the case of Islam and Mormon fundamentalism) or the traditional Aztec practice of human sacrifice. The government has a compelling interest in protecting the well-being of children and the lives of would-be victims.

Again, nothing too advanced here. The reason religious freedom has fallen out of vogue is not its complexity, but rather its apparent conflict with the gay rights movement.

Unfortunately, the focus of the gay rights movement has shifted from defending the rights of gay Americans to embrace a homosexual lifestyle free from discrimination and persecution– to live and love as they choose– to the right to do so without anyone voicing so much as a word of criticism or objection. After considering (and rejecting) a strategy that would have promoted civil unions as a legal protection for gay and lesbian partnerships, liberals now claim the right to redefine marriage, an institution as old as human society itself, to suit the sexual and emotional needs of homosexual adults.

Anyone who so much as breaths a word of caution at what would undoubtedly be one of the largest social experiments in human history is mocked as backward, bigoted, and “on the wrong side of history.” Anyone who dares defend the traditional understanding of marriage is roundly chastised on social media, subjected to intimidation and threats, and targeted for financial ruin.

Despite earlier promises and reassurances, the power of the state is now being used not only to silence religious opposition to the redefinition of marriage, but to require participation in what amounts to government-mandated speech. Baking a cake, photographing a ceremony, and even arranging flowers are forms of speech requiring the creative energies of the baker, photographer, and florist. Declining to participate in same-sex ceremonies, or any ceremonies for that matter, is not discrimination; it is the constitutionally-protected right of every American citizen.

Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

It is a sad reality that college campuses, which should be the most open to debate and even controversy, have instead led the charge in the attack on freedom of speech. Many young Americans no longer see the importance of protecting speech they and their friends in the echo-chamber of liberal elitism disagree with. It is easy to picture the fervent nineteen-year-old student tilting her head in confusion at the notion that even unpopular views deserve protection. “Why would you want to protect the right to be wrong?”

All sorts of excuses are given for limiting unpopular (usually conservative) speech. The first is to label it as “hate,” reducing traditional Christians to the level of Neo-Nazis and the KKK. (In Canada, it is now a hate crime to advocate a traditional definition of marriage or to quote the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality.) The second is to trot out the lie that appeals to traditional morality are dangerous and intolerant, as they may damage the fragile self-esteem of anyone who is not a “privileged” heterosexual white Christian male.

But scratch beneath the surface, and one discovers a radical metaphysical and epistemological shift underlying the culture wars. Traditional Christian morality rests upon an understanding of natural law, the idea that reality is absolute and that objective truth can be discovered outside of one’s subjective feelings using the human faculties of reason and observation. On the other hand, those who share a progressive worldview regard reality as just a powerful illusion, and truth therefore a social construct. It is not fixed or eternal—not handed down by a divine Creator. Rather, we are the collective creators, and truth is whatever the majority of people in a society say it is. To borrow a line from Orwell, using this standard, 2+2 can equal 5.

Because the liberal basis for truth is so tenuous, resting on such a fragile foundation as popular opinion, all dissenting voices must be singled out for ridicule and then silenced, lest they supplant liberalism as the dominant narrative. Inconvenient facts must be suppressed in the name of whatever generally agreed-upon Higher Cause. Dogmas are propagated in the absence of biological or physical evidence (for example, the notion that a man can become a woman, or that a fetus developing in the womb is not a person).

On the other hand, the best conservative and Christian thinkers are not afraid of challenges to their positions. They can rest assured that the truth will not change, regardless of whether they lose this particular debate on this particular day. Moral relativists enjoy no such reassurances, resulting in a cauldron of insecurity and doubt simmering under a veneer of artificial confidence. Tolerance is not enough; all must be active participants in the creation of this artificial “truth.” This metaphysical insecurity explains the paradox of the intolerant Left, which only tolerates relatively insignificant differences in appearance, but not the more meaningful differences in belief. They will accept any combination of sexual and gender identity (hence the diversity designation LGBT-QIA), but not a difference in opinion, especially if it comes from a member of a specially-protected victim group.

In conclusion, our natural rights to life and liberty are being subverted. In their place, Americans are being offered an array of artificial, man-made “rights,” mainly the “right” to engage in any and all sexual activity (pre-marital, homosexual, polygamous, adulterous) while being freed from the consequences of said activities (contraception, abortion). But this is only symptomatic of an erroneous understanding of morality, based not on a rational understanding of natural law, but rather a “might makes right” approach to truth itself.

What is needed now is not just a reordering of the hierarchy of competing rights, but also a proper understanding of where those rights originate.

I began this post by observing that it has been a long time since Americans were this divided on the nature of liberty, but this is by no means the first time. Just over a hundred and fifty years ago, serious individuals actually debated whether a person had the right to own another human being. A slave’s right to liberty was considered by many to fall below the slave owner’s right to own property.

Our rights come not from society or even the law, but from our Creator, as clearly stated the Declaration of Independence. We can discover these rights using our God-given faculties of reason or “common sense”; they are thus “self-evident.” It does not take a doctoral degree in philosophy to understand that people are born and have a right to be free, but it takes a clever perversion of the law to argue that a man can own another man. Even a child intuitively knows that the life of a brother or sister growing in his mother’s womb is a human being worthy of protection, a “baby,” but it takes decades of social conditioning and some very convoluted Constitutional jujitsu to fabricate the right to end that life, often for no better reason than convenience.

Those who today speak with such confidence about being “on the right side of history” would do well to recall that abolition and emancipation were once unpopular and controversial views that many sought to silence. The loudest voices demanding an end to slavery were not secular ones, but Christians who felt compelled to carry their moral convictions into the public square. In the end, the natural right to freedom prevailed; not because it was popular, but because it was right in its conformity to natural law.