Last weekend, my alma mater, Biola University, hosted “God, Science & the Big Questions: Leading Christian Thinkers Respond to the New Atheism.” This is the full video recording. Enjoy!
A while back, I posted an article entitled, “What an Apologist’s Job is Not,” in which I advised fellow apologists on how to recognize (and stop wasting time in) futile interactions. This post is sort of a follow-up, in response to the ongoing positive feedback I’ve received on the piece. My objective this time is to outline six common characteristics of “Adolescent Atheism”–a brand of poorly-informed, logic-disregarding, verbally hostile atheism that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
NOTE: I do not use the term “adolescent” in the pejorative sense here; rather, I mean it in the technical sense–the condition of not being fully matured. Adolescent Atheism is a state of arrested intellectual development with marked characteristics that I will discuss below. Please also note that I am not stereotyping all non-believers; I fully recognize that some are careful to avoid the following errors.
1. The tendency to accuse Christian scholars of pushing their religious agenda for emotional (as opposed to rational) reasons. The main problem with this tactic is that it doesn’t address any argument whatsoever. For example, the statement: “Francis Collins is a brilliant scientist who is emotionally motivated to believe and promote Christianity” says absolutely nothing about whether or not Collins’ views about Christianity are actually correct; his reasons for holding his views are entirely irrelevant to the discussion. It has been argued (and I agree) that anyone who promotes a particular metaphysical view (theistic or atheistic) is emotionally motivated. That doesn’t mean that the person is exclusively motivated by emotion and hasn’t also examined their belief system for rationality and coherence, and it says nothing about truth or falsehood.
2. A refusal (often a poorly-disguised inability) to interact with key scholarship in philosophy and theology, often dismissing it as a “word salad” or “verbal diarrhea.” This attitude is rather amusing, because it is so self-incriminating; it comes across as nothing more than an arrogant cover for the inability to comprehend the complexities of philosophy and theology. Recently, I came across an article in which Dr. Sam Harris (neuroscientist) referred to the works of Dr. John Polkinghorne (theoretical physicist and theologian) and Dr. N.T. Wright (theologian), by saying: “…when you consult their work, you get just pure madness. It is just a word salad, which is foisted on scientifically illiterate people by scientifically literate people for reasons that are patently emotional.” (Notice that this statement also displays characteristic #1.) I’ve heard very similar remarks from individuals who failed to grasp arguments made by esteemed atheist philosophers regarding the intellectual respectability of theism. If there’s no direct interaction with the philosophical and theological assertions themselves, the credibility of the detractor instantly dissolves. Side note: It’s interesting that some atheist scientists find it entirely acceptable to be outspoken about disciplines they are not trained in themselves, but woe to those in other fields who dare to talk about science without “proper” credentials.
3. A penchant for attacking the character of the Christian theist with high-voltage language in an attempt to cast doubt upon their viewpoint. This is the classic fallacy known as ad hominem. It often involves expletive-laced name-calling, but I just as frequently see it manifested (and experience it) as accusations of purposeful dishonesty. I sometimes receive emails–dripping with angry arrogance–that accuse me of lying about the historical evidence for Christianity. When I provide scholarly references for my claims (carefully avoiding the fallacy known as “appeal to authority”), I either get chirping crickets or the attack is shifted to the cited scholars in the form of statements such as “they’re not a legitimate scholar.” It seems that a PhD from Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Caltech, etc. is only legitimate if the graduate is an atheist.
4. Habitual use of worn-out straw men in place of orthodox Christian doctrine. A favorite tactic of Adolescent Atheism is using misleading or silly portrayals of Christian beliefs in an attempt to make the beliefs seem absurd. For example, they might refer to God as a “wish-granting genie in the clouds.” The irony is, orthodox Christians don’t believe in that god, either (divine attributes are definitive). Another common approach is to interpret Scripture with a hyper-literalism–completely ignoring the genre or context of the passage–and then knocking down the alleged teaching of the text: “Voila! The Bible is rubbish!!” I often see this done by self-described “former Christians” who mutilate cosmological and eschatological passages. (I do not deny that part of the blame for this phenomenon rests upon churches that should be doing a much better job of teaching biblical exegesis and doctrine.)
5. The [intentional?] failure to include important historical details–which sometimes results in a grand irony. On Christmas day this year, atheist scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted, “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.” What Tyson conveniently omitted was the fact that Newton was a Christian theist who wrote reams of material on theology (perhaps even more than he did on science) and took an unmistakably theistic view of the cosmos. In his famous scientific treatise, The Principia, Newton said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God…” A couple of days ago, in a comment thread of a news article about Tyson’s tweets, someone listed other famous scientists of Western history who were Christians, and a self-described atheist responded that Galileo lied about being a Christian so that he wouldn’t get in trouble with the Catholic Church. Someone who has studied Galileo’s writings (including his personal letters) for more than ten minutes will likely recognize how ludicrous this statement is. Christianity has a broad and rich intellectual history involving great men and women of science, and the better-informed acknowledge this rather than sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug or trying to explain them away.
6. The ceaseless effort to continue riding the dead horse of scientism (the self-refuting belief that only science can be the source of well-grounded knowledge). A major problem is that those holding this view have many firm beliefs about reality that actually cannot be confirmed through the project of scientific investigation. Many who embrace scientism also like to claim that science has demolished the case for God; therefore, those who take science seriously and are intellectually consistent do not believe in God. For a full discussion of this mistake, see my recent article, “Sorry; No Such Thing as a Scientific Argument Against the Existence of God.”
Christian apologists have differing opinions on whether or not correctives to Adolescent Atheism should even be offered. Some say that we shouldn’t bother, because it’s rare that it will make much difference in the thinking of the Adolescent. But, as I’ve said before, some of the chief objectives of public apologetics are to equip other Christians to think clearly and logically and to encourage them to use their time and energy wisely rather than getting swept up in emotionally-charged conversations. To be sure, any public interaction with an Adolescent should be brief, to the point, and done primarily for the benefit of the observers, not in an attempt to influence the interlocutor (though, in rare cases, progress is made).
I’ll end by saying that there are atheist and agnostic scholars of past and present that do not display the above characteristics and have made respectable, erudite contributions to the age-old debate about the existence of God. They are thoughtful (interacting with the ideas rather than haughtily dismissing them, and not attacking people), are usually considerate of those with whom they disagree (some even maintaining genuine friendships with Christian scholars), and are knowledgeable about the relevant history, philosophy, and theology. A few who immediately come to mind are Dr. Michael Ruse (Florida State University), Dr. Bradley Monton (University of Colorado), and Dr. Thomas Nagel (NYU). This is not to say that I have not found points of theological and philosophical disagreement with these scholars; but they demonstrate seriousness of thought and a desire to correctly understand and portray opposing views. I’m looking forward to reading Ruse’s latest book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, and I have enjoyed the writings of Nagel and Monton as well. I’ve recently begun reading some of Bertrand Russell’s work for a research paper I’ll be writing in the spring. Stay tuned for my observations and reflections.
Here’s a little treat for you today–computer animations of the intricate processes going on in living cells–a symphony so finely orchestrated it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around. No human contrivance has come anywhere near this level of sophistication, and our scientific knowledge of cellular biology isn’t even exhaustive.
VIEWER CAUTION: We should take care, lest we forget that this is all thanks to the self-organizational powers of stardust, followed by the serendipitous chemical formation of a self-replicating molecule, followed by the fortuitous conglomeration of diverse materials into a reproducing primitive cell, followed by billions and billions of accidental DNA replication mistakes that eventually led to the high-functioning brains of the computer engineers that designed these animations. Don’t be fooled into thinking that any of what you observe was planned or intentional, ladies and gentlemen! We must be more intellectually responsible than that, or the grand edifice of science will collapse!!! ;-)
The wonderful thing about winter break is that I have a few precious weeks to catch up on all the books and articles on my “To Read Later” list. This one was too fun not to share, and it’s directly relevant to my previous post on the lack of moral grounding within the atheist paradigm. Earlier this year, homicide detective and Christian apologist, J. Warner Wallace, encountered an unbeliever who–wonder of wonders–understood and freely admitted the ramifications of a godless world and harshly criticized atheists who either don’t grasp the truth or simply refuse to admit it. You really have to chuckle at “John’s” wording in some spots. Enjoy!
One week before I graduated high school, the film Bridges of Madison County hit theaters. For an 18-year old girl with a bit of a crush on the gravelly-voiced Clint Eastwood, a plot line that included a whirlwind romance and life-long unrequited love was a recipe for a teary-eyed sigh-fest. For months after seeing the movie, I would name it as my favorite chick flick, and each time I watched it over again I urged Francesca to open the truck door.
The film, in case you haven’t seen it, is about adultery. An emotionally unfulfilled farm wife has a torrid three-day affair with a handsome travelling photographer while her husband and children are off showing livestock at the state fair. Her husband, a gentle, kind man, never learns of the indiscretion, and thereafter, Francesca remains loyal to him for the remainder of his days, even nursing him on his deathbed. Yet, the film viewer is left wistfully disappointed that Francesca didn’t run away with the exciting and romantic Robert Kincaid when she had the opportunity.
Had anyone questioned the 18-year-old me about my views on the permissibility of adultery, I would have vehemently opposed it, as I still do. So, there was a sharp dissonance between my intellectual/moral convictions and my immature sentiments about Bridges of Madison County–a fine testament to how we sometimes inadvertently turn a blind eye to our inner moral compass under emotional circumstances. But, unless you are a moral relativist, wrong is always wrong, no matter what feelings or desires are involved, and (this is KEY) whether or not anyone finds out about the deed.
In the Christian worldview, there are moral absolutes– things that are wrong, for all people, in all times and places. Infidelity to one’s spouse is always certainly wrong, even if one manages to successfully hide it. Why do we believe this? Because God has created and sanctified marriage; the wife’s body belongs only to her husband, and the husband’s belongs to his wife. As my own wedding vows to my husband said, “I am consecrated unto you alone.” There are indelible Laws, and these laws can exist only because there is a Law Giver.
But what about in the atheistic worldview? If the atheist determines that he or she can be unfaithful while away on a business trip without their spouse ever finding out (and thus being hurt), on what grounds can they claim their adultery would actually be wrong? Most often, I’ve heard “wrong” defined by unbelievers as being something that causes someone else emotional or physical pain. So, what is there to stop them from satisfying physical urges unbeknownst to anyone that would be upset by the action? If they insist on calling adultery “bad,” how are they grounding that badness? Where’s the measuring rod?
In a 2007 article (now in his website archives), atheist Richard Dawkins frowned upon those valuing faithfulness. In “Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster,” he asked, “Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?” He says that we need to intellectually “rise above” the sexual jealousy that blind Darwinian evolution has produced in us and cheerfully permit our spouses to carry on any sexual recreation they choose to have outside the marriage bed. “Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others if he or she is that way inclined?” he asks. Dawkins is being completely consistent with his worldview by denying any objective sexual morality, even where marriage is concerned, so long as no one is harmed. (It remains unclear, however, why harming anyone or anything is objectively wrong in his view, where morality is nothing but an evolutionary social construct.)
My sense is that most self-described atheists, particularly those who are in happy marriages, have a deep-seated conviction that something is truly wrong with marital infidelity. As God’s image-bearers, the Truth of Things resonates strongly within their soul, and they know that spouses should be faithful. Just like they know, intuitively, that it is wrong to stab puppies with scissors for fun. The Apostle Paul talked about how even those who do not profess to follow God often still follow His law, for it is written on their hearts—“their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15).
I’ve never personally encountered an atheist who verbally endorsed objective morality. Some have told me that we should simply “let emotions be our guide” (you know, those blindly evolved neuro-chemical reactions in our blindly evolved brain) or that we should simply “refrain from harming” anyone. These are technically compatible with a clandestine extramarital affair, aren’t they? At the end of the day, though, how many unbelievers would claim that secretly cheating on your husband or wife is not absolutely wrong? Not that many, I’m thinking.
It’s a curious thing.
I love science. I mean, I REALLY. LOVE. SCIENCE. My earliest, most vivid memories of school go back to my kindergarten class at C. Wayne Collier Elementary School, watching film strips (remember those, children of the 80s?) about dinosaurs, volcanoes, or the solar system, being transfixed by the awesomeness. My deepest desire in the sixth grade was to attend Space Camp. To this day, I am a sucker for a good science book or documentary–when it sticks to the actual science. Unfortunately, many productions these days promote a deeply philosophical agenda that isn’t scientific in the least (think of the recent TV series, Cosmos, hosted by atheist Neil DeGrasse Tyson). The tragic result of such propaganda is that some impressionable Christians end up questioning the rationality of their belief in God.
However, the statement, “God does not exist,” has never been, is not now, and never will be a scientific assertion. (See what I did there, Sagan?) This means that science, by its very definition, cannot be the epistemic justification for atheism. Yet how often do we see popular atheist writers (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et. al.) base entire books on the claim: “God doesn’t exist! Let me show you the science!”
Really? Science investigates the matter (including the physical bodies of living organisms), energy, and relationships/dynamics of matter and energy in the material universe. But if God exists, He is immaterial and transcends the material universe. Science, no matter how far it ever advances, cannot rule Him out because it can never reach beyond the physical.
To be fair, not all materialists are trying to say that science DISPROVES God. But even arguments that simply attempt to discredit theism by rendering God superfluous point to material mechanisms and then make a philosophical leap. “Look how wonderfully creative and powerful evolution is! Nature is the designer! Therefore, God isn’t necessary! There is no goal, there is no purpose behind it all! Religion is dumb!”
This has always struck me as a ridiculous position. First of all, no matter what the “powers” of evolutionary mechanisms happen to be, there is no scientific method that can rule out an immaterial engineer of said mechanisms or any immaterial influence acting through natural processes to make them so [allegedly] powerful. To say that there is no transcendent mind orchestrating what we are able to observe in the material realm is to make a purely metaphysical statement. Unfortunately, very few scientists are trained philosophers. Perhaps this is why they don’t notice the fallacy or the enormous amount of faith required by their paradigm.
The fundamental question is: What does the World include? By “World” I mean all things material AND immaterial. The theist says that there is, in addition to all things physical, a realm of the immaterial. This realm includes God, upon whom the material universe is dependent for existence. The materialist/atheist says that there is no immaterial realm; but it is a category mistake for him or her to say science itself produces such a conclusion.
Essentially, anyone who makes the claim that science has destroyed or undermined theism is trying to piggyback their materialist philosophy onto scientific theories that cannot support the weight of such a piggy.