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Angry Atheists Again

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It’s a familiar story, but a recent Huffington Post article caught my attention.  The author, a non-Christian physicist, expresses shock after posting an article on the age of the earth.  Expecting a torrent of abuse from religious conservatives, he was surprised that it was the atheistic fundamentalists who piled on.

One of the biggest objections to religion is that there are so many competing truth claims.  How can each claim to be right?  Religious detractors argue that this is in sharp contrast to science, which is based on facts upon which any rational person can agree.

How do we handle this objection?  First, it is important to point out that the number of truth claims on the market has nothing to do with whether which, if any of them, is true.

Take something as significant as belief in a transcendent creator.  Cambridge mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle noted, “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.  The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”   In sharp contrast, biologist and passionate defender of atheism Richard Dawkins says, “The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and toward atheism.”  These thinkers can hardly be distinguished by their scientific credentials.  If anything, Hoyle contributed far more to applied science than has Dawkins so far.  Both came to radically different conclusions based on their considerable study of nature.

Albert Einstein saw himself as more of a pantheist like Spinoza than an atheist like Marx or Nietzsche.  "[T]he fanatical atheists,” he wrote to a friend, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle.”  They are simply rebelling against their religious upbringing.  Indeed, he added that although he didn’t believe in a personal God, “such belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook.”  Following Spinoza, he was a strict determinist.  He wrote to physicist Max Born,
You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice game, although I am well aware that some of our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility.

Scientists disagree about all sorts of things: from matters as metaphysical as string theory to details over genetic mutation.  In fact, as Michael Polanyi argued years ago, scientists belong to a concrete, historical community of interpretation.  They too have lives, histories, and experiences within which they interpret reality.

We all remember the ill-fated pronouncements of the church in relation to Copernicus and Galileo, but it was scientists who made the biggest fuss at least initially over the new cosmology.  Not unlike religious communities, the scientific community resists massive paradigm shifts.  That’s good, because we’d be starting over every day if it were otherwise.  It takes a lot of anomalies to overthrow a well-established paradigm.  But it happens.

Of course, one reason that paradigm revolutions can occur is that there are rigorous standards for evaluating and testing theories.  I would argue that this is what sets Christianity apart from other religions.  It arose not out of a projection of felt needs, the charisma of a sage, or the profundity of its universal ideas, but as a historical claim with cosmic significance: the resurrection of Jesus.  It was a paradigm revolution within the Jewish community that sparked momentous debate.  Even greater was the shift that it provoked when it met the Greek world.  The idea of God as personal—and three persons to boot; that the world is created out of nothing, as a free act by a good God, not to mention the incarnation of this God in history and his death and resurrection as redemption-bringing events, were completely revolutionary.  One couldn’t really be a good Platonist by day and a Christian by night.  A choice had to be made.

Even within religious communities there are major paradigm shifts.  The Reformation is an example.  Fresh exegesis turned up new evidence and shed new light on passages that had been misunderstood—even mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate.  This doesn’t explain it all, of course, but it was a big part of it.  The reformers didn’t set out to cause a revolution.  They didn’t touch most of the Christian doctrines—affirming the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other key teachings without alteration.  However, they did cause many throughout Europe to rethink the meaning of the gospel.  Pretty significant on its own merits.

At some point, we have to take responsibility.  We can’t just dismiss the search with Pilate’s shrug, “What is truth?”

At a conference a number of years ago, I was on a panel with Bill Nye (as in “The Science Guy”).  Like a modern-day David Hume, he made general arguments about religious claims as equivalent to fairy tales that evolve over time with each telling.  I agreed with some of his assertions about religion in general, but asked him to evaluate specific claims for Christ’s resurrection.  Going through these claims, one by one, he became increasingly impatient.  Finally, without addressing even one of the arguments, he dismissed the whole thing with a single brush, returning to his opening assertions.

Christianity has been in the business of offering arguments and evidence from the beginning.  The Hebrew prophets mock the idols of the nations because they cannot speak and cannot make good on their promises in history.  The God of Israel has done so in Jesus Christ and “has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Of course, none of us is neutral.  We all come to the evidence with big assumptions about reality.  The Holy Spirit alone can bring conversion, but he does so through his Word.  And he also uses supporting arguments and evidence that reveal too many devastating anomalies—indeed contradictions—that our reigning worldview can’t accommodate.  One thing is for certain: to say that miracles do not happen because they cannot happen is as vicious a circle as any argument can be.  In fact, it’s not an argument at all, but mere assertion.  Isaac Asimov said, “Emotionally, I am an atheist.  I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”  Insert “believer” and change “doesn’t exist” to “does exist” and there is nothing expressed here that the Dawkinses of the world wouldn’t leap upon as evidence of blind faith.

Hoyle concludes, seemingly against his personal inclinations, that the evidence requires a transcendent creator, while Dawkins’ conclusion couldn’t be more antithetical.  No less than religious ones, scientific claims about ultimate reality are driven by deeper worldview assumptions.  But the sheer fact that there are competing claims doesn’t settle anything.  Whether or not we take the time to investigate those claims on their own terms is a decision that closed minds on both sides of the debate will have to consider seriously if the search for truth is of any significance to being human.
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  • Guest - Jack Miller

    Good stuff here, Dr. Horton! Keep it up (I know you will) and thanks...

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  • Thomas, if I understand you correctly, someone who possesses a "worldview by defining his position as sheer skepticism" would be effectively an agnostic, correct? In contrast, a "coherent atheist" is someone who has "skin in the game"--i.e. they make an actual truth-claim: "there is no God".

    Roughly: "there is a God" - theism
    "this is no God" - atheism
    "not enough information to make a claim" - agnosticism

    Is that right?

    Singularity, I'm intrigued by your statement "agnostic atheism and a subset of agnosticism". Do you have a reference or two that helps unpack the category of agnosticism. (I didn't realize it was complex enough a category to have subsets).

    Very interesting thread! Thank you all and Dr. Horton as well.

    I wish I could see a video of the Bill Nye/Horton debate. Alas, Googling turned up no hits for me.

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  • Excellent article. There is a modern confusion about science based on ignorance of the field, and that confusion is that there is some kind of official final scientific word on any topic. There is no "science pope" who has the final, official say. Scientists debate and discuss nearly every subject, with at least slight disagreements on most topics. The very nature of science means every topic is always up to debate, because the purpose is to learn, study, and understand.

    It is when people become dogmatic and insistent on one proclamation or declaration that the worst science is done, whatever the topic.

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  • Guest - Paul Swift

    When defending the faith once delivered to the saints in the arena of assertive naturalism--as with all other idolatries--the reformed Christian is best served by hewing to sola Scriptura in the light of his confession. This plays out variously dependent on the audience, but he must ever be conscious of the non-negotiables, ready to not only defend them but press them to the confounding of the opposition.

    Among these, the Christian debater must never loosen his hold on the doctrine of sin. While he is right to employ classical rational argument, he will not be discouraged to see it rejected by an opponent who simply does not wish the argument to be true. One weak link in the classical deistic proofs was their Aristotelian assumption of universal pure rationality on the part of hearers. Under that assumption, multiplicity of evidence should be sufficient to convince anyone to acknowledge truth--but the formula "Did God really say?" has been echoed since Act I, Scene III of our story, and the Lord of truth warns "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."

    Of course forensic rules in the public debate format preclude declaring one's opponent a sinner who should not be listened to! But what one can and must do--hewing to his confession--is press every instance of inconsistency of argument--and they are legion. This could mean the presuppositionalist Transcendental Argument of Greg Bahnsen, delivered so flawlessly and movingly againt Gordon Stein in 1985 (the only flaw of that memorable evening being the cluelessness of Stein's self-implosion; one wonders how much further Bahnsen would have gone against a more astute opponent.)

    But not all--hopefully not most--defenses of the faith occur in public debate. The evangelist or pastor--or parent--is quite free to level all of his weapons at his hearers, and call them to acknowledge that God is true even if every man is a liar, that regardless of what they say the Scripture declares them in possession of sufficient knowledge of God to lack any excuse, and to bow the knee before him through repentant faith in his Son. Schaeffer pressed this point so repeatedly and so fervently, that all--even every Asimov, Hitchens, Dawkins and Nye--are inescapably aware of not only the existence of the God they deny, but of their guilt in so denying him, "for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them."

    Let us not shrink back from finding ways to faithfully apply all the riches of the Word as we proclaim the gospel of Christ to our particular adulterous generation. When the church has sometimes failed to do so, it has never been due to hewing closely to the Word, but rather from a lack of confidence to do so.

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  • Guest - Chris

    Very well written, Dr. Horton.

    You made your point, and you made it well.

    "But the sheer fact that there are competing claims doesn’t settle anything.

    Thanks for the tidbit,

    Chris Jager
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Chris

    I think the search for truth has much to do with being human, don't you all?

    Chris Jager,
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Paul Swift

    Chris,

    The search for truth is one among several attributes of the species which both distinguishes it from all others and poses severe problems for those who maintain a materialist cosmology; their system allows no metaphysical reality, yet their press of that "truth claim" against non-materialists is itself completely metaphysical! The moment I move my vocal cords--or fingers--in such a way that your brain registers the thought "He just said that the universe comprises nothing more than permutations of a great deal of mass and energy over a great span of time", I have denied my own proposition by attempting to persuade you to think a certain way--as if one aggregation of quanta could have a reason for altering a different aggregation!

    The search for truth, however, is also poorly handled by what is doubtless a far larger group than the strict materialists. Much of the West, which once would have at least paid homage--even in the absence of thorough conviction--to certain Scriptural absolutes, is now quite happy to use the phrase in a markedly inferior way to their cultural forbears. The earlier formula "because in Jesus Christ we have received the most essential truth, we may now confidently ferret out truth claims about much else over which he is Lord, for his glory and the good of our neighbors, and always subject to his own revealed will" has devolved to something like "I'm going to search for truth as long as it takes to make me happy--and nobody, not even God, can ever tell me I'm wrong!"

    Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, and he is glorified in all true science. If, say, the Higgs boson is isolated, it will be because he both created it along with everything else and purposed its discovery. He has no quarrel with scientists doing their proper work of discovery, description, and application; all will turn out to hinge rather on their--and our--response to him, and he has not left himself without witness.

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  • Guest - Thomas

    Paul,

    Nature may darken the intellect, but sin perverts the will. To do justice to the old scholastics, Aquinas believed in the power of the mind to attain to truth (a fact which makes him very different from us moderns), but he also had a very realistic awareness of the limitations of pure reason in the lives of real people. Those limitations can be physiological, environmental, educational, moral, as well as intrinsic to the disordered relation between the intellect and the imagination due to sin. Bonaventure believed all these things too, but with more Augustinian pessimism.

    But let’s be clear, we are not talking about the proclamation of the Gospel. Preaching is a rhetorical art and a divine summons. Argument is proper to a very different mode of discourse. When we argue we search for the truth and discover it by our own natural powers. We must trust reason. We must trust our intellect. We must presume the reasonableness of our opponents. Regeneration no more guarantees that we have open minds and critical thinking skills than reprobation necessitates that our opponents do not.

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  • Guest - Thomas

    Neal,

    Yes. Skin in the game. Great expression. But it’s not the claim that God does not exist (which many deny making) that ought to garner our immediate attention and remain the focus of sustained criticism. It is everything else, be it cosmology, epistemology, morality, etc. My point was focused on cosmogony: There may be no god. But there is a universe. How do we account for that? Is it coherent to claim that the universe is all that there is? This is neither self-evident nor deserving of unquestioning acceptance.

    Perhaps they will surprise us, even – God forbid – devastate us with a coherent answer. But too often we are never given the opportunity to hear those answers because we tacitly consent to a one-sided debate.

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  • Guest - Paul Swift

    Thomas,

    While I agree with your final sentence as a tactical reality, your three preceding "musts" are variously subject to the sin-enhanced limitations you listed above and thus not universally applicable, requiring a complement to your assertion that we "discover [truth] by our own natural powers": the certainty of those discoveries is necessarily dependent upon their submission to the realities of the existence and revelation of the eternal, personal God of the Scriptures.

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