Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

A Philosophy Lecture

ImageSo I was sitting and listening to Richard Swinburne, the Oxford professor who is perhaps the leading voice in philosophy of religion among Christians worldwide, and I was getting knots in my stomach.  I didn’t want to stand up and ask questions, because I felt like a kindergartner who had wandered into a class on nuclear physics.  But something just wasn’t sitting right with me.

Swinburne believes that morals exist, regardless of the existence of God.  God clarifies morality, and sometimes makes obligatory things that are only neutral otherwise, but morality is just a real thing that everyone knows about.

So when the nice man stood there waiting for questions, and the glazed-over undergraduates with limited experience in philosophy had nothing to say, I felt worse for him than I did about myself, and I went to the microphone.

“If there are logically necessary moral principles,” I began, “then how do you respond to the sweepingly popular atheism in the West that uses those morals to critique the canonical God, who does things like telling Abraham to kill Isaac?” To be honest, there were probably a lot of “ums” and “uhs” in there too.

What Swinburne did next was dumfounding.  He said that the early church used an analogical reading of Scripture to make the difficult texts jibe with Christian morality.  For instance, he said, citing Psalm 137, the early church took the “children of Babylon” to be our evil desires, and the “rock” against which they were to be bashed was of course Jesus.  So some texts don’t have to be interpreted literally.

So there was my answer – difficult passages of Scripture can be written off with flowery and virtually nonsensical interpretations.

That interaction brought me back for his second lecture the next night.  I wasn’t disappointed.  He talked about how it’s beneficial to be governed by Christian moral principles, like the fact that men should be the decision-makers in their marriages and homosexuals shouldn’t marry.

So I hopped up to the microphone again.  “If we believe that passages that don’t jibe with Christian morality can be interpreted analogically,” he nodded as I spoke, “and you’ve said that humanity seems to be progressing morally over time through a process of reflective equilibrium, why can’t we analogically interpret the passages that now run counter to increasingly widespread thinking in the modern Church?”

His answer was a long one, which wove its way through the correct way to analogically read Scripture to the process of canonization to Augustine to the nature of modern ethical thinking.  I’m not quite sure what the conclusion was.

But here’s the deal – on those places where I agree with Swinburne, I come to my views based on a literal reading of Scripture.  Analogically divorcing the God of the Scripture from moral principles that seem more intuitively appealing is just going to create a false, albeit nice, God.  It’s an idol of intuition.  And it’s going to be impossible to hold onto rigid, literal biblical principles on human sexuality while writing off a God who doesn’t behave the way we want him to.

Morality is determined and dictated by the God who can command Abraham to sacrifice his son.  He can tell us who to marry and who not to.  Morals cannot fundamentally exist without God, because morality is, and only is, what God makes it.  The minute we try to soften that God with flowery interpretations of Scripture, we lose God all together.  Without God, we are highly evolved puddles of primordial ooze, and morality is a joke.

Then again, admittedly, I’m not qualified to challenge a mind like Swinburne, and an hour’s lecture with brief Q&A isn’t sufficient to plumb a man’s thoughts.

SDG

Watching the sun set over the ocean always feels like the closing curtain to a good play.  Moments like these feel like a sweetly passing sentiment, because we have become so used to God whispering his love that we take it for granted.  We don’t even hear it, a spouse’s “What was that?” to the other who has already left the room.  But the order of the universe is in fact a message from God.

The harmony of creation is a lullaby from a God who is reordering a broken world.  It’s his way of telling us there is still sense in things, even after tragedy.  It’s the strength of the arms that cradle us.  It’s his, “There, there.” Because there is fundamental order “out there,” maybe one day I can have it “in here.”

And thus you can hear the love of nature’s harmony in Bach’s Inventions.  He scratched at the top of his compositions, “SDG,” or Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone be the glory.  If he had not written it there, his music would say it by itself, because the fundamental order that beauty captures glorifies God.  SDG is written on the sunset.  The pulsing rhythm of sunrises and sunsets are a visual drumbeat.Image

Creation’s order plays on our natural love of harmony and structure.  That should be a clue to us as to where we come from.  The idea that order could just spring from a primal nothing should strike us as absurd.  Order has to have come from somewhere.  At least when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, there was a hat.  For those who believe the universe just came to be, there is no hat, and no magician.  Science has changed its mind on this one.  Historically, the predominant view was not that the universe came to exist, but that it had always been.  For those who didn’t believe in a Creator, the idea of a moment of creation was too much of an affront.  In fact, Marcus Aurelius called it logically absurd.[1]  “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” Today, we know universally and conversationally about the Big Bang, or in other words, the magically appearing rabbit.  And this fact honestly makes atheists queasy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein described what this feels like. He said that he sometimes had a certain experience which could best be described by saying that “when I have it, I wonder at the existence of the world. I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘How extraordinary that anything should exist!’ or ‘How extraordinary that the world should exist!’” [2]

And it is extraordinary.  Extraordinary that our hearts long for order.  Extraordinary that we feel like it should be more complete than it is.  And extraordinary that our deepest longings jibe with that which God has promised.  God is a fairly sloppy artist.  He’s left his fingerprints all over the work.

1 The Meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, V.12.

2 Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press,1958), p. 70.

Book Review: Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel

ImageYou kind of wonder about the book that could provoke Daniel Dennett to say, “it’s cute, it’s clever, and not worth a damn” and incite the betrayal of Steven Pinker, who tweeted of it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Every page is filled with jaw-dropping concessions to the foundations of theism, though even on the last page, Nagel isn’t a convert.

Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, 2012) is a book in which an NYU philosophy professor seeks to undermine materialism, a bedrock of the modern scientific establishment.  He almost patronizingly names that materialism and neo-Darwinist theory defy common sense and are simply unlikely.  It reads like a kid who has been eating candy all night and is finally sick and considering vegetables.  This is the closest an atheist will ever come to undermining his own worldview before prayer.  It’s the last glimpse of the stars before the sun rises.

Nagel confesses, “…for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works.  The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.  …it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.”

He then goes groping for a non-theistic explanation for consciousness and morality, which he insists cannot be products of matter.  Perhaps there are atomic particles that are strictly mental, which we simply haven’t developed the apparatus to trace.  Perhaps the laws of nature are somehow innately teleological for reasons that we cannot explain.  (At this point, the gentle whisper of the choir begins to rise behind him.)

And Nagel admits to reading not only established Christian philosophers (“I agree with Alvin Plantinga…”) but to writers on Intelligent Design, heretofore the subject of late night TV mockery.

He spends time dabbling in the “constitutive question,” of what consciousness is made of, and the “historical question,” of how it came to be.  But in the end he simply admits to a “gaping lack” of an explanation.  Then he goes on to the problem of cognition, by which he means the kind of objectivity that reason depends upon.  He calls this problem simply “intractable.” And finally he covers issues of value and morality.  Here he admits that on a Darwinist rubric, impressions of value “are groundless.”

He has basically made many of the intellectual concessions necessary to establish that theism is more probable than atheism.

Feedback has been unfriendly.  “He is questioning a certain kind of orthodoxy, and they are responding in the way the orthodox respond,” said philosopher Alva Noe of Berkeley.  But I have to say a word of thanks, that he would be intellectually honest enough to own up to the things that atheists aren’t supposed to say.

Everyone Believes

One of the things that fascinates me about modern defenders of the Christian faith is how casually they begin in the wrong place.  They start with the assumption that their listeners are objective and analytical and can be persuaded by facts.  I doubt this is true.  Then they assume their role is one of defense attorney who presents a reliable case sufficient to free God from the atheist’s accusations.  I know this isn’t true.

The Bible starts in a completely different place, saying we are “without excuse” for not believing (Romans 1:20).  The atheist needs a defense attorney.

And what’s most surprising about this to me is that the guy who says he doesn’t believe in God has already shown that he depends upon a world in which God does exist in three ways.

First, when one says, “God does not exist,” that person is assuming that the purpose of communication is to tell the truth.  They assume that they are somehow morally obligated to try to reflect what they think accurately, and they assume the person to whom they are speaking is doing the same.  But this moral undergirding is suspicious.  If God doesn’t exist, morality is at best a mistaken byproduct of blind evolution.  So long as survival of the fittest is the only goal, there’s really no objective moral obligation.  I can tell the truth if I want and not if I don’t.  But when we say, “God does not exist,” we’re assuming that communication in general rests on a real obligation to tell the truth, which is a moral claim.  It’s just strange to me that we act as though objective morals should exist, when a universe without God doesn’t require objective morality.

Second, when you say, “God does not exist,” you are assuming that the thoughts in your head accurately reflect the world around you.  You really think that in the universe, there is not a God, and that your perception of that world is accurate.  But there’s a problem.  In a godless universe, everything is simply matter.  Everything is made up of colliding particles.  Our brains in our heads are just a collection of particles that have come to function in certain ways.  But there’s nothing objective that obligates the particles in our heads to give us an accurate picture of the real world (this is sort of the red pill here).  It’s the same as the first point in a way – nothing objectively obligates brains to “tell the truth,” or to work in a way that is objectively accurate.  Yet when someone says, “God does not exist,” there is a fundamental assumption that brains and sensory organs must work accurately.  Descartes, Berkeley, and company knew that they had to ground their philosophies in the assumed existence of God before they could begin talking about what they did and didn’t know about the world.  But the assumption that our senses are right isn’t necessary in a godless material universe.

Third, when you say “God does not exist,” you are trusting that communication actually works.  You are trusting that the ideas in one person’s head can be translated into language, perceived consistently, and received accurately.  Deconstructionists like Foucault would say that this misrepresents they way language actually works, as truths are simply the falsehoods that have been hardened by the long baking process of history.  Derrida would observe that the place where we assume big ideas are connected to particular expressions of those ideas (where “forms” are stamped into “particulars”) is a lot more fuzzy than we assume when we talk to each other.  Again, a material universe with no guiding conscience would not necessitate that words  have meaning or that language is effective.  These things require something more purposeful than the blind movements of particles.

So when someone says “I don’t believe in God,” they are trusting that we are bound by the objective moral obligation to tell the truth, that our brains are bound to purposefully reveal accurate information, and that communication can be infused with objective meaning, none of which should necessarily exist in a godless universe.  That person is acting like God is there at exactly the moment she says he isn’t.

So ironically, the person who says “God does not exist” is actually proving that God does.

Explore this and other curiosities in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know, available this September from Abingdon Press.