Atheism Is Not Endearing

While looking for something else, I stumbled across this quote from the actor/atheist Hugh Laurie.

I find my atheism is becoming more marked with each passing year. I once prided myself on a relaxed and respectful attitude to other people’s beliefs, but I’m finding it harder to keep that up. I might find myself taking a tougher line with people about certain beliefs that are so painfully nonsensical. Because nonsense is not endearing or eccentric anymore – it’s causing death, destruction, and endless torment for millions of people around the world.

What’s funny to me about this is that it describes perfectly my own attitude toward atheism. When I was an undergraduate I thought atheists were generally intellectual powerhouses who had serious and meaningful challenges to the existence of God. Or, perhaps they were deep thinkers who had endured such awful tragedy in their personal life, that no other narrative except unbelief could offer a reassuring explanation of their suffering. For a long time this was the idea that I had about the “skeptics” and the teachers they so enthusiastically emulated.

But over the last couple of years, I too have experienced a shift  from a “relaxed and respectful attitude,” and exactly for the reasons that Laurie mentions: The stakes are too high and the effects of this worldview are too toxic. Contrary to what my undergraduate self imagined, I have discovered that more than a few self-described “skeptics” remain skeptics chiefly because they have taken exhaustive efforts to never be challenged in this regard. The number of atheists I’ve met and corresponded with who will admit to not knowing one historic argument for the existence of God, or not having one acquaintance with a believer who can seriously argue his case, is astonishing.

Beyond this, I’ve seen that the intellectual case for atheism, which I had believed to be so formidable, is not just irreparably deformed from a logical perspective, but also from a humane one as well. To read the latest and most popular volumes of skepticism from people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins is to confront an intellectual system that is nakedly bankrupt in moral and aesthetic value. The efforts of “scientism” to explain away the transcendent phenomenon of beauty, and the personal experience of the numinous, is nothing less than a project to sweep the legs out from under hope and human freedom. The fruits of such a belief system are evident, too: Atheism is the undisputed ruler of the internet, but it reigns alongside the most twisted forms of pornography and human degradation imaginable. There is a reason that Reddit and 4Chan are bastions of sophomore skepticism on one wing, and factories of sexual nihilism and abuse in the other.

I’ve lost my patience with atheism, but I hope I haven’t lost my patience with atheists. I still enjoy very much talking about these things with the unconvinced. And, of course, as a Christian, I have an eschatological motivation in those conversations. But as Laurie succinctly said, I don’t find the whole thing endearing anymore. There’s just too much, and too many, to be saved from it.

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Was C.S. Lewis an Evolutionist?

Was C.S. Lewis an evolutionist? I’ve heard this charge laid against him more than once, sometimes by admirers but more often by those who would prefer us to be reading and quoting someone else.

The best way to answer this question is to look not just at one-off comments, but at Lewis’s intellectual trajectory as a whole. That’s what Douglas Wilson did when he recently addressed the question of Lewis’s beliefs.

Here’s the relevant quote from Wilson:

But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult…in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.

Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.

“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”

Lewis’s intellectual trajectory here is important. Sometimes Lewis is dinged by modern, evangelical commentators for not approaching the Scripture in a more traditionally inerrantist way. There are some legitimate criticisms of Lewis there to be found, no doubt. But I think Wilson is exactly right that Lewis’s writing indicates movement towards a biblical worldview and anthropology, not away from it.

There’s more evidence. Much of Lewis’s argument in Miracles, for example, is very welcoming to the idea that God directly interferes in natural laws. It’s always seemed to me that one of the appeals of evolution is that it relieves its patron from the awkward doctrine of an omnipotent Creator actually running around in his creation doing things. This feels like an undignified and too personal view of God, as opposed to one in which God simply implements his natural principles of cause and effect in such a way that human emergence is guaranteed. I’m not sure that Lewis would have approached the topic of Miracles the way he did if he desired to preserve the philosophical foundations of theistic evolution.

There’s also a fascinating passage in The Weight of Glory in which Lewis critiques “universal evolutionism.” (evolutionary naturalism) It seems fairly clear from this passage that Lewis believed that a) the genetic history of the world is not an infinite cycle and 2) that history and cosmic teleology was not heading, as Darwinists claim, towards greater evolutionary emergence:

…universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the [chicken’s] emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. We love to notice that the express engine of to-day is the descendant of the ‘Rocket’; we do not equally remember that the ‘Rocket’ springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius. The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination. (The Weight of Glory, 104-105)

None of this demonstrates that Lewis was not a theistic evolutionist. However, it does suggest that Lewis came to believe that the evolutionary view of natural history was, at best, a royal mess, and at worst, pure nonsense. It would absolutely make sense if, by the end of his life, Lewis rejected, for all practical purposes, any sort of evolutionary explanation for human beings. Again, there’s no smoking gun for that, but it would certainly fit the pattern of his later intellectual trajectory.

What’s Your Conscience Worth?

Bruce Springsteen says he won’t perform for North Carolina, as long as the state upholds its recently passed law regarding gender and public restrooms. Springsteen is doing what millions of Americans are taught, in classrooms and in culture, to do: Standing up for his conscience, and drawing lines accordingly. But in our era, the question becomes: If this is counted to Springsteen as righteousness, why is it counted as sin to North Carolina?

That’s the kind of morally confused age we live in. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom could write in The Closing of the American Mind that nearly all American college students had one thing in common: A (professed, at least) belief in relativism. Bloom was prophetic and prescient in his time. But is his observation still true today?

There’s reason to doubt it. There’s reason to believe, as several commentators are now saying, that relativism has been weighed in the balance by the millennials and found wanting. Postmodernism’s tantalizing promise of the end of metanarrative and ethical absolutes has tripped over the foot of “academic justice,” Obergefell vs Hodges, and transgender restrooms. What we see in American culture today is not the reign of “Just do you,” but “Just go along with it.” Following your heart is old and busted; being on the right side of history is the new hotness.

G.K. Chesterton observed the difference between two kinds of worldview. The first worldview places great confidence in truth but is skeptical of oneself. Belief in transcendent realities is solid, but humanity’s inherent ability, or even desire, to seek them out is suspect. The second worldview does precisely the opposite: It places great confidence in human abilities, but is wary and suspicious of anything claiming to be truth.

On the surface, it looks like our contemporary culture is the embodiment of the second option. But I actually think that the spirit of our current age is less pure than that. What the Springsteen/North Carolina example shows us is that our culture is actually trying to escape the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of worldview #2 by combining it, in a sort of hideous moral alchemy, with worldview #1. The result is what you might call a secular religion, an indefatigable belief in absolutes that are in turn defined wholly in terms of human instincts and cravings. Those who violate the religion–those who question the inerrancy of human autonomy and progress–are the heretics, who must be quarantined and kept at bay.

The idea in question has been called “New Morality,” and I think that’s a helpful way of understanding the seemingly contradictory cultural trends at work now. The sexual revolution was never amoral; many of its fruits are immoral, of course, but at its core was always a moral center as rigid as that of the religionists it appeared to so deftly defy. By saying that it couldn’t define “person” in Roe v Wade, for example, the Supreme Court was actually defining it, the same way that separate-but-equal did in fact define personhood and citizenship by not defining it. Thus, “safe, legal, and rare” has lost its usefulness for the abortion lobby, which now prefers to talk about the “absolute good” of abortion and the sinister “anitchoice tactic” of humanizing the fetus. You can see the pattern: The language of choice and freedom has morphed into the language of obligation and necessity.

So the language of the culture has changed. Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that all Christians are missionaries to foreign-speaking lands, and so must learn to understand the language of culture in order to speak truth to it. What’s important for Christians to learn now is that the question of relativistic postmodernism was, “What does your conscience look like?” But the question of New Morality is, “What’s your conscience worth?”

The last generation had to insist that the neutering of absolute truth–the “gagging of God,” as D.A. Carson put it–was at odds with the Christian gospel. We had to articulate our religious DNA to a culture that was being taught at every turn that every god came from the same family tree. But now the conversation is changed. Our task now is to show that our un-gagged God cannot be bought off with promises of the “right side of history” and the approbation of our descendants. We must show our beliefs in more than theological argument but in practical acts of rebellion against the cultural consensus.

Whenever freedom of conscience is threatened by the ambient culture, two things inevitably happen. First, pressure will be applied to those who dissent to either recant or to accept their contagion and shrink back to the smallest corners of the public square. The second thing that happens is that sometimes, this pressure works. So we see memes like “Bake for Them Two,” an attempt to end-around, using religious jargon, the question of conscience and so be at peace once again with the spirit of the age. On the other hand, we also see angry, hand-wringing dissenters, for whom the pressures of the surrounding culture are causing them to forget who they are and where they are headed. Both options are capitulations, and both betray the value of our testimony.

Only a conscience worth something can point out when false gods fail to deliver the fire they promise. Only a conscience worth something can lose admission to Ph.D. programs but stand athwart culture yelling, “Stop!” And only a conscience worth something can carry a gospel that is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.

What’s your conscience worth?

 

The Fallacy Kings of New Atheism

Edward Feser, a philosophy professor in California, calls Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, an “omnibus of fallacies.”

[Coyne] has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by “religion.” Forty pages later, he’ll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by “religion.” If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.

This is vintage New Atheism. One of the recurring themes in NA bibliography is the utter inability to talk about religious language in a way that is actually meaningful. Over and over and over again, Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne use the word “religion” to describe base irrationality, while at the same time stacking the deck so that any trace of reasonableness becomes evidence of how elastic and meaningless religion really is.

Feser says Coyne’s book “might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre.” That’s a highly sought-after award, as Feser notes, but Coyne seems up to the challenge:

Coyne’s own method, then, is to characterize religion however he needs to in order to convict it of irrationality. Nor is “religion” the only term Coyne uses in a tendentious way. The question-begging definition is perhaps his favorite debating trick. He characterizes “faith” as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence” and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts. Naturally, he has no trouble showing that faith so understood is irrational. But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology. For example, for scholastic theologians, faith is assent to something that has been revealed by God. And how do we know that God exists and really has revealed it? Those are claims for which, the theologian agrees, evidence needs to be given.

This kind of mistake would be avoided if Coyne were at least marginally conversant with theology. But theology is rubbish, a hoax, so why waste time with it? It is remarkably convenient for these writers that because theology is nonsense and we mustn’t talk about it, we should need to rely on biologists and neuroscientists to explain it, and take their word that it really is turtles all the way down.

Of course, this doesn’t matter if your main objective is to vent your spleen about how stupid religious people are, or how much better the world would be in total secularity. And that is, after all, what the entire New Atheism was about from the beginning. NA’s most glaring fault has always been a severe internal ignorance about religion. There’s no rule that says biologists can’t talk about philosophy, of course, but there is a rule that says people who don’t understand–or even totally reject–categories of thought beyond the empirical shouldn’t embarrass themselves and waste time for others.

If philosopher kings are a bad idea, biologist anti-philosopher kings are an even worse one. At least Plato gave us The Republic, instead of a grumpy Twitter account.

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Why Should You Trust the Bible? 5 Questions With Pastor Greg Gilbert

 

Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky (full disclosure: Third Avenue is where I am a member), wants you to “get” Christianity. That’s why, for example, he has a Masters in theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s degree from a little New England school called Yale. It’s also why Greg has written, to date, three short, easy-to-read volumes on the basics of Christian belief: What Is the Gospel, Who Is Jesus, and now, Why Trust the Bible.

Greg’s latest work Why Trust the Bible? is a brief primer on why and how the Bible stands up to even the most strident criticism and examination. I asked Greg if he’d be willing to answer 5 questions about Why Trust the Bible, and he graciously did so.

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How did doing an undergraduate at an Ivy League school help you prepare for articulating the kind of arguments you’re making in “Why Trust the Bible”?  

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any “culture shock” coming from a small town in East Texas to Yale.  Other than eventually forcing myself to love coffee, the main thing was that all of a sudden, essentially no one approached Christianity with the same deference and presupposed acceptance that was normal for basically everyone in my home town.  All of a sudden, every proposition of my faith was under question by peers and professors alike, and so I had to do the really hard work of figuring out not just what I believed, but why.  At first, I think I took a fairly defensive posture in the conversations I was having.  My main goal was just to be able to say, “I believe this, and that’s intellectually defensible.”  

But over time, I think I finally got frustrated with that approach and decided to go on offense. I didn’t want to end the conversation just having shown that it was okay for me to be a Christian.  I wanted to show people that the pressure really was on them, not me.  They needed to defend themselves for not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. 

That was an intellectual revolution for me–to realize that the evidence for Christianity is actually so good that a Christian can go on offense with a non-believer and challenge them to defend their unbelief.

In your own ministry context, do you tend to see more people doubting the trustworthiness of the Bible due to intellectual/logical issues or due to personal/existential crises?

It’s almost always a tangle of issues.  Intellectual questions can introduce the kind of doubt that leads to personal crisis, and personal crisis can lead people to doubt the Bible on an intellectual level.  So it’s important always to deal with both sides at the same time; you have to get the wheel turning, and it’s impossible to make half of it turn if the other half isn’t turning as well.  Does that make sense?  

3. What’s one common mistake you see Christians making when it comes to dialoguing with non-Christians about the trustworthiness of the Bible and Christianity?

 I think the most damaging mistake is accepting the world’s assumption that we don’t really have good reasons for believing what we do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Christians get backed into a conversational corner and finally just throw up their hands and say something like, “Well I can’t prove it to you! You just have to accept it on faith!”  And of course when we do that, the unbeliever just chuckles and walks away thinking, “That’s what I thought.”  

But the Christian faith isn’t like that at all.  We don’t accept it on an empty “leap of faith.”  No, there are solid reasons for believing what we do about Jesus.  There are reasons for believing the Bible is trustworthy, for believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and for believing that he really is who he said he is.  And the thing is–they’re not just reasons that will be convincing only to those who are already convinced!  They’re reasons that, if we understand them and use them well, can challenge an unbeliever to rethink his unbelief.  I think that’s what Peter meant when he said, “Always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you.”  That word “defense,” doesn’t mean “defense” as we hear that word.  It means “case.”  Make a case.  Have reasons that will not only make you feel better, but will make an unbeliever feel unsettled.  

 What author(s) has been particularly helpful to you in thinking about these questions? Specific books?  

There are a lot, and many of them are mentioned in footnotes and also in an appendix in Why Trust the Bible.  None of the arguments I make in that book are original to me (well, maybe one or two!).  The idea was just to take the massive, detailed case Christians have made for centuries about the reliability of the Bible and put it in a form that Christians can read and grasp and use quickly and (I hope) easily.

If you had time to say only one sentence to an atheist to provoke them to consider Christianity, what would that sentence be?

“Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and how can you be so sure?”

Be sure to pick up pastor Greg’s new book Why Trust the Bible, available everywhere.