God is not a god.

John Dickson from CPX recently posted a diagram illustrating, as he put it, why it’s dumb to say that religions are ‘atheists’ about each other, and that Atheists “just deny one god more” (as has been said repeatedly by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, FitzSimons, et al., and many online warriors since).

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I was involved in the ensuing conversation, and it seems the point needs more elaboration for some.

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Pranking the Qur’an

A few days ago a pair of Dutch comedians, Sacha Harland and Alexander Spoor, decided to perform the sort of lame prank that is guaranteed to pull internet views. They wrapped a Bible with a cover reading “Holy Quran” and then read excerpts to random people in the streets to get a reaction.

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The Age newspaper had an article on it, Patheos had a post about it on The Friendly Atheist, it’s been featured far and wide. It has over a million views on Youtube.

The creators explained the experiment thus:

“Muslims have been accused of following a faith that has no place in our Western culture. What about Christianity? A religion that has influenced our culture greatly.”

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Brendan O’Neill on “smug atheism”

An interesting recent post in The Telegraph by columnist Brendan O’Neill, entitled: “How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet“.

A brief excerpt:

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?

Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.

The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

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Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.

On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:

“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”

You can find the whole article here:

“Wrong fight, wrong concepts, wrong everything” by Grainge Clarke

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Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

Maths, science and abstractions

Where God meets physics

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Children of God: the awkward teenage years

Just a quick update – I recently published an article on the journal Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology, entitled “Children of God: The awkward teenage years“. The abstract below will give you something of the flavour:

In this essay I explore some of the manifestations of ‘teenage rebellion’ in matters of faith and society: how disillusionment with God can manifest and impact our lives. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, an early childish optimism towards our idealised vision of life often gives way to dissatisfaction, cynicism and disillusionment in our teenage years. This is a natural by-product of a youthful idealism based on unrealistic notions, and hopefully as we continue to mature to adulthood we understand life more deeply and regain our satisfaction, enthusiasm and sense of wonder with all that this life and universe have to offer. In general, I believe that this disillusionment is rooted in our early failure of understanding. The core of the Christian faith is a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus. A person who believes in God but does not have a relationship with him may find that this level of faith is insufficient to withstand the additional pressures, responsibilities and difficulties that adulthood requires. On a broader perspective, I also look briefly at disillusionment with science from the Enlightenment to the present day.

Get the whole article here:

http://www.iscast.org/Smith_M_2012-04_Children_of_God

The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

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On the relative efficacy of cathedral demolition strategies

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I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

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Cathedrals are too high for bulldozers. In the Soviet Union under Stalin and the German Democratic Republic under Ulbricht they used explosives instead.

        – Richard Schröder, Professor of Philosophy in Berlin

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Doing a little mythbusting…

Hard to believe that in such an intellectually advanced age there are still some who cling tenaciously to the notion that “Jesus was not a real historical figure”, but apparently the light of education has still not penetrated all the deep corners.

Should be unfortunate enough to find yourself accosted by denialists, you may find this essay series by James Hannam useful. Hannam writes in his introduction:

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“The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind…

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references,  2) the alleged similarities to paganism, and 3) the silence of St. Paul.”

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Hannam deals with each of these contentions in a highly readable and well-researched series of essays. Read the rest of Is Jesus Christ a Myth? here:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

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Hannam holds degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University, and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. (You can also read more from him at Quodlibeta).

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

A theoretical faith

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What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

Atheism as manifest in the West is an odd phenomenon – in many ways, it’s very much an off-shoot of Christianity. It’s essentially the result of taking Christ out of Christianity and trying to hang onto the rest if it. So we see widespread support for the “loving your neighbour as yourself” commandment, but a willful disregard for its other half (loving God with your all). There is plenty of acknowledgement of Jesus as a teacher, but not as Lord. “He said some good things, but he’s was just this guy, you know?”

The best description that I’ve heard for this condition is “cut-flower morality”. We think that we can remove the teachings and the wisdom from the divine root and still enjoy their beauty. We deny that humans are made by God, and still expect that humans have intrinsic value.

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It’s not the “what”, it’s the “why”

I’m currently reading “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon. The book is set in New York during the late 1930s and ’40s – the Golden Age of comic books – and the titular heroes of the novel are budding comic book creators.

In an early scene they are discussing a potential hero for their own story: Should he fly? Should he be super-strong? Should he be invisible? (A little hard to draw that one, perhaps, but anyway…) Various combinations of superpowers are discussed, until Clay, the writer, has a sudden moment of revelation:

It’s not the what, it’s the why.

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There’s no “I” in atheism

I recently posted Creed, a poem by Steve Turner which outlines the relativist worldview. Although satirical, the poem does present many commonly-held beliefs amongst atheists. But it also does something which goes beyond the typical atheist approach: it actually sets out those beliefs clearly.

Yes, I’m aware that atheism isn’t a uniform worldview. But neither is Christianity. The central core of Christianity is uniform – that’s how we recognise it. But there are plenty of differences in opinion and a great deal of (often heated) discussion about everything beyond what is covered in the ecumenical creeds. There are many denominations in Christianity, but within each denomination there is a clear articulation of their beliefs. In short, you know exactly what you’re dealing with if you want to debate what Catholics or Baptists believe.

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Speaking of clear articulations, let’s have a couple of definitions so that we all know what we’re talking about:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010):

Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God.

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (MacMillan, 2005):

On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.

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Within atheism there are also many different views on issues of secondary importance. The primary issue is denial of God (and usually the supernatural), but beyond that it’s an open field. And that’s great: discussions about why we hold different beliefs can be an excellent way of learning about alternative points of view, and also help us to understand our own beliefs better.

But we have to actually hold a coherent set of beliefs before we can have a useful discussion.

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I recently had a lengthy exchange with an atheist about the origins of morality. In over 2500 words of discussion, my correspondent never offered a concrete statement of personal beliefs. All sorts of theories were suggested, mention was made of “fascinating new research about morality” in various quarters, books titles and authors were offered as solemn incantations.

But as to the beliefs held personally by the individual? Not a peep. My own personal beliefs were articulated and examined at length, but repeated requests for a clear statement of my correspondent’s beliefs were met only with deflection and evasion.

I mention this particular exchange as but one example of a much larger trend. I observe in conversations with atheists an almost pathological aversion to the personal pronoun.

“Look, all these people have been writing big books on the subject!”

Yes, and…? What do you personally believe?

“Research supports this particular belief!”

Great. Do you personally believe that?

“Recent advances in [genetics]/[cosmology]/[evolutionary biology] indicate that…”

Do you personally use those advances as the basis of your worldview, or are your beliefs based on something else? And if so, what?

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Socrates famously declared that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. But an unexaminable life is no life at all. If personal beliefs cannot be articulated, they cannot be understood the individual, let alone by others.

The Nicene Creed is a towering pillar of the Christian faith. It is a clear and succinct articulation of the core beliefs of Christianity, a concise expression of primary doctrine. To affirm the creed is to draw a clear line in the sand and say, “these are my beliefs.” That is the starting point for a useful discussion.

The Creed does not start off with: “Christians in general maintain that…”, or “It has long been the opinion of great theologians…”, or “The official Church position is that…”

It starts much more simply:

“I believe …”

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Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Having the wrong conversation

The relativist creed

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Religion, sex and truth claims

Truth claims are everywhere.

Sometimes the connections are complicated: our systems of justice are predicated on the assumption of free will, because without the choice to act or not in a particular situation, there can be no question of responsibility for actions. This in turn makes the truth claim that rigid materialism is false (because otherwise our actions are merely the results of random unguided processes – indeed, we are just collections of random unguided processes).

The ones I’m interested in today are a little more straightforward, but still quite subtle. For example:

“Religion should evolve with society.”

Buried in this statement is the claim that religious beliefs do not contain ultimate truth, and that religions are really just support clubs. If the core teaching of a religion should evolve, then it contains no absolute truth, for such truth would transcend social fashions.

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Sex and science: Discuss

Sex and science: we need to talk about both. And not just on this blog – we need to talk about them in church and at home, too.

Both sex and science are hugely powerful and important. Both have the potential to be wonderful, or to be terribly destructive. Responsibility and maturity are needed before we can safely handle either.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our kids about sex, or science for that matter. Interest and curiosity (in both areas) are aroused from a young age, so let’s rather start the discussions early. Parents and pastors need to be willing to engage openly with both subjects.

But we need to be honest about both. Eventually, kids are going to grow up and engage with the wider world, and the wider world is drenched in both science and sex.

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Choose your perversion

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The relativist creed

An atheist worldview encourages relativism, with its insistence on removal of moral absolutes and rejection of truth claims. One of the finest expressions of self-defeating nature of relativism is the poem Creed, written in 1993 by English poet and music journalist Steve Turner. (The postscript, called Chance, was added later).

Personally, I prefer the Nicene.

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Creed by Steve Turner

We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don’t hurt anyone
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.
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We believe in sex before, during, and
after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy’s OK.
We believe that taboos are taboo.
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Hypothetically speaking

It’s a common atheist article of faith  – at least amongst members of the more vocal denominations – that science is the only reliable path to knowledge. There are a few problems with this belief, mostly to do with the fundamental limitations of the framework in which scientific inquiry operates, which usually leads to flawed claims about what science can demonstrate.

The problem becomes even bigger when we move away from the proper domain of science but still try and sound all “sciencey” – generally to try and give a weak argument a veneer of authority. Thus we see such unfortunate mixed metaphors as “mind virus”, “meme” and “cultural evolution”, all of which take concepts from their proper scientific domain of biology and arbitrarily apply them to psychology and sociology, in which fields they are hopelessly inappropriate.

What exactly is the memetic equivalent for DNA? Has it been identified?

How exactly is a “mind virus” distinct from “a popular idea that I personally don’t like”?

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“Memes” and other non-scientific ravings

This unfortunate tendency is displayed by professional scientists as well as dilettantes. Let’s look, for example, at an early instance of Richard Dawkins stepping off the edge of the scientific map but clinging desperately to the jargon. The passage below is from The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins first introduced his odious “meme”:

The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe.  Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? … I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

…And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

…Consider the idea of God.  We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.  Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation’.

Here’s the recipe that Dawkins seems to be following to create his theory:

1. Take a tiny pinch of physics.

2. Misappropriate a dab of biology.

3. Mix in a whole lot of crazy guesswork and random analogies.

4. Top it off with a broad covering of atheism.

Let me unpack that in a bit more detail:

His opening statement about physics is misleading. He refers to the universal applicability of the laws of physics, but this is in itself an assumption. The laws of physics that we know about operate only within limits: we hope that there are even more fundamental (as yet unknown) laws that are universal, but it’s still a work in progress. The Dark Matter questions illustrate these problems.

From a wobbly starting assumption about physics, Dawkins leaps straight to a wholly unfounded assumption about biology – that it must operate the same way that physics (maybe) operates. From there he moves confidently to claiming to have identified a universal principle of biology (the existence of mutating replicators), and identifying (how, exactly?) a new example of the type (memes).

Then he dives headfirst into the jargon soup: meme-pools, memetic propogation, etc, freely borrowing from biological terminology with no explanation of how such analogues are justifiable.

This would be misleading enough if he were merely employing a bad metaphor, but he freely claims that “this isn’t just a way of talking” – his meme is an identifiable feature of the universe!

Wow, those are some big claims.

What’s his evidence for memes, by the way? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t any.

Well, as Dawkins famously said:

“…next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”

How, in all this, is his use of “meme” more useful to the conversation than just saying “idea”? What it his justification for the new term?

Simple: it sounds more sciencey.

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“God hypothesis” is not a scientific term

There is another misleading expression much beloved of Dawkins and his ilk, and that is “the God hypothesis”. Like “meme”, this terminology is pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as rationality.

The word “hypothesis” has a specific meaning in science: it’s a tentative explanation for something which can be further tested. But the expression “God hypothesis” is ridiculous, particularly when the discussion concerns Christianity (in which context it is most often employed). God supercedes the natural world, and is impervious to experimentation.

More importantly, the impression conveyed by the phrase “God hypothesis” is that “well, we don’t know how this thing works, so let’s invoke some supernatural creator of the universe and claim that he did it”. But this is also ridiculous and misleading.

Let’s take the origin of the universe as an example, since that’s where the phrase is most often used.

Scientific consensus is that time and space were created about 15 billion years ago, and also that observation is impossible of events “before” t=0. Thus scientific consensus also declares that scientific inquiry is limited to the period after the Big Bang, and cannot investigate a causal agent.

So the short version is, science can’t help us with the question of whether God created the universe.

At this point, big and fancy words like “parsimony” tend to get thrown into the conversation. The argument is that “God” is a complex idea, and introducing “God” just to explain the Big Bang is philosophical overkill. (Philosophical, note, not scientific – remember that we are off the scientific map).

However, the Christian view does not suggest God as an arbitrary causal agent: knowledge of God exists independently of Origin questions, and views of God creating everything (including time) from outside of creation predate the Big Bang model by nearly three millenia. Augustine, writing 1500 years before the genesis of the Big Bang theory, described God outside of Time and God as a Prime Cause – this in an age when an eternal universe was the norm for non-Christian thought. Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas developed his argument of a “necessary God”  in Summa Theologica, this line of reasoning was independent of the Prime Cause issue.

The point is, God already exists in the Christian worldview. We already have knowledge of God from personal and historical revelation, from rational inquiry into the Universe, and so on. If anything, it actually simplifies the picture for God to also be the prime cause – He is not invoked to fill a gap, He is already in the worldview.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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The timidity of New Atheists

I’m disappointed by New Atheist writers.

Not specifically with their conclusions, although I think their investigative methods to reach said conclusions are remarkable sloppy. No, I’m more disappointed with their timidity. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al. are very happy to make grand and sweeping claims, but they seem to lack the intellectual courage to follow their arguments through. In the midst of their tireless self-promotion as evangelists of the bright atheist future, there is a marked unwillingess to be honest about the details of where exactly their ideals would lead humanity.

Morality is an interesting case in point here. Dawkins is happy to propose secular humanism as an alternative moral compass, despite its unfortunate tendency to promote eugenics and infanticide. This philosophy maintains that ethics and morality can be derived from human rationality (“ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”, as the humanist articles of faith put it), despite the dearth of evidence for such rationality in human affairs.

The biggest problem with the humanist approach is that it requires staunch adherence to beliefs which are insupportable in the absence of God. “All people are created equal” is a wonderful basis for a just society, but without the Creator it makes no sense. People are not equal. They have unequal distribution of intellect, of athletic ability, of attractiveness. Unless there is independent justification for such a concept, an intellectually honest atheist should scrap it.

So let’s see where this level of honesty might lead. Friedrich Nietzsche – perhaps best known for his statement “God is dead” – believed that human behaviour was ultimately based on individual people’s “will to power”. Nietzsche claimed that the “death of God” would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective and any coherent sense of objective truth. Power is the whole of the law. His philosophy is startlingly echoed in Mao Tse-Tung’s description of his own ethics:

“I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . . [People like me want to] satisfy our hearts to the full and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. . . . I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.”

Writing in The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day comments on this worldview:

“This philosophy is rational, but it is literally psychopathic in the sense described by Dr. Robert Hare, developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a clinical scale used to diagnose psychopathy. He describes psychopaths as predators who use intimidation and violence to satisfy their own selfish needs. ‘Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.’

“While it is not possible to diagnose the mental health of a dead man, the tens of millions of Chinese murdered by the Mao regime tend to indicate that the close correspondence between the words of the twenty-four-year-old philosophy student and Dr. Hare’s description of psychopathy is not entirely coincidental.”

I don’t for a minute claim that this worldview is shared by all atheists, but I question what basis there is for an atheist to hold any different view. Why should the happiness of others be any kind of moral imperative?

Dawkins seems particularly content to close his eyes and ignore implications of his own arguments. Hence we see such foolishness as this:

“I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” (The God Delusion)

The well-documented destruction of 41 000 of Russia’s 48 000 churches by Soviet atheists between 1917 and 1969 would seem to be a glaring rebuttal to this belief. And we needn’t limit ourselves to a single example – the atheist regime in North Korea has destroyed 440 of country’s 500 Buddhist temples, and atheists in China have destroyed some 7000 temples and monasteries in Tibet.

The question, though, is why Dawkins would object to such destruction. If religion is abusive and freeing the religious masses from their delusions is his avowed aim, why not bulldoze all the places of worship? Unweave that rainbow, burn those books and start fresh! Show some guts and take your beliefs all the way!

Sam Harris, despite his overwhelming tendency towards illogical idiocy, comes closer to displaying the courage of his convictions. In The End of Faith he states that:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

He seems to be willing to accept that his vision of a global atheist utopia will require a lot of genocide to attain – although he’s not quite honest enough to phrase it that baldly. In his Afterword, he attempts to dispute the connection between atheism and the widespread atrocities which seem to be so characteristic of atheist governments:

“This is one of the most common criticisms I encounter… While some of the most despicable political movements in human history have been explicitly irreligious, they were not especially rational.”

Again – why should it matter? I’d love to hear Harris (or any other public advocate of atheism) say, “The tendency of atheist regimes to slaughter their own citizens is irrelevant – the truth is more important than the lives of other people.”

Because if you don’t believe that, why do you keep trying to bring about the New Enlightenment?

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Related posts:

Secular (in)Humanism

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism

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Plus ça change…

I’ve just finished reading Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. What’s most fascinating to me is that it was written over 100 years ago and yet the issues that he’s discussing – materialism, evolution, determinism, conflicts fought in the name of religion, morality in the absence of divine guidance, etc. – are all exactly the same things that are shaping the debate today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here are a few selected excerpts:

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Chesterton on relativism:

“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one.  Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view.  We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”

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…on the faith of rationality:

“Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.  If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself.  I have no right to think at all.'”

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…on the philosophical aspects of evolution:

“Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself.  If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism.  If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into.  It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.  This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.”

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…on knee-jerk scepticism:

“The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it… It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end.  It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  Free thought has exhausted its own freedom… We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks.  We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

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…on the history of the Church:

“…in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple:  it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire.  The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.  It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again:  repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top… If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new.  She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch… How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”

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Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Chesterton on Miracles

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Having the wrong conversation

Over at Always Have a Reason, J.W. recently wrote a post on the atheists’ rhetorical quip:

“Everyone’s an atheist with regards to most faiths – we just take it one step further”.

We see this sort of thing in blog comments:

“When you understand why you don’t believe in Thor and Osiris, you’ll also understand why I don’t believe in your God.”

It paints a picture of atheism as a pure voice of reason towards which all the silly faith-heads are aspiring, and hopefully will one day attain. The implication is that there is a close accord between the beliefs of atheism and Christianity, and that Christians are in fact “almost atheists”.

In fact, the whole discussion is way off-target. The distinction between a Christian and an atheist is not numerical, and my rejection of Osiris and Thor as worthy of worship cannot be usefully described as “atheism” towards them.

It would seem equally banal to say that “Christians believe in infinitely many more gods than atheists”, but in fact this argument is nearer to the truth. The fundamental point is this:

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Christians acknowledge the existence of the supernatural realm;

atheists deny it.

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This is a very different statement, and it fundamentally affects the way that we approach the conversation. It is useless to invoke the existence of other religions as an argument for atheism. Discrepancies between Christianity and Hinduism do not reinforce the atheist faith, and to even discuss them with an atheist is probably futile. The atheist worldview precludes the possibility that either Hinduism or Christianity can have anything useful to say about the supernatural, because the supernatural does not exist in that worldview. How then, can we discuss spiritual experience in different faiths?

The only function of invoking other faiths in support of atheism is a diversionary tactic. Its intent is to put a Christian in the position of having to defend the validity of supernatural experience while trying not to defend the validity of other faiths, and this position is complicated by the fact that neither person is an expert on all other faiths. It moves the conversation away from the real point of contention and into an area where (usually) neither participant is actually able to talk from personal experience or expertise.

The pivotal step in an inter-faith dialogue between a Christian and an atheist is the existence of God, and the associated reality of the supernatural realm. To discuss intricacies within the supernatural order without acknowledgment of said order is meaningless. It would be like attempting to explore the material world while believing that the material world was just an illusion.

Let’s stop getting distracted by the wrong conversation and start having the right one.

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Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Faith: reflecting on evidence

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Living a good and/or Christian life

C. S. Lewis, in his classic essay Man or Rabbit?, reflects on the frequent secular refrain:

“It’s possible to be a very moral person without being a Christian.”

I wrote recently about problems that come from viewing Christianity as a self-improvement program; this question looks from the other end of the issue. Can’t you be a moral atheist?

The first issue with this question concerns the value we place on truth. When a worldview makes major claims about ultimate reality, the central issue should not be whether it is useful, but whether it is actually true. In contrast, if we make a simplifying assumption of materialism to answer a scientific question, it is enough that the assumption is merely useful. But if we are basing our lives on a belief, then we must (if we have any intellectual integrity) seek what is true.

And when we are dealing with morality, our very basis for assessing the moral import of an action is determined by our worldview. If we think of individuals as mere packages of genetic material winding down the hours between conception and oblivion, then we may want to emphasise whatever fleeting happiness that we can get. Such a perspective will incline us to prioritise “society” over the individual, since “society” will last longer and contains more collective “happiness” potential at any one instant. We seen previously how secular humanism, the dominant atheist moral philosophy, leads logically to the devaluation of individual human life.

But from a Christian perspective, we cannot ignore the good of the individual. If we believe that true and complete joy can only come from an intimate and eternal relationship with God, then any nebulous increase in societal “happiness” is trifling in comparison with reconciling the soul of one individual person to God.

Clearly, the two worldviews have major differences in moral reasoning. There may well be areas of overlap in the implementation, but the motivations behind moral behaviour will be different in these two scenarios.

There is also the question of what morality actually means in a purely materialist worldview. Without an objective standard, morality becomes a fairly meaningless concept. “According to my personal standards of morality, I’m very moral!” – that’s great, Jeffrey Dahmer and Idi Amin could probably have said the same thing. (And no, “the general consensus amongst the people” is not an objective standard).

Perhaps more important is the hidden question that lurks beneath the surface. The proposition: “A person can be moral without being a Christian” is misleading. Lewis explains:

The question before each of us is not “Can someone lead a good life without Christianity?” The question is, “Can I?” We all know there have been good men who were not Christians; men like Socrates and Confucius who had never heard of it, or men like J. S. Mill who quite honestly couldn’t believe it. Supposing Christianity to be true, these men were in a state of honest ignorance or honest error … But the man who asks me, “Can’t I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” is clearly not in the same position. If he hadn’t heard of Christianity he would not be asking this question. If, having heard of it, and having seriously considered it, he had decided that it was untrue, then once more he would not be asking the question. The man who asks this question has heard of Christianity and is by no means certain that it may not be true. He is really asking, “Need I bother about it?” Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being ‘good’? Aren’t good intentions enough to keep me safe and blameless without knocking at that dreadful door and making sure whether there is, or isn’t someone inside?”

We cannot accept Christ as a wise and moral teacher without also accepting him as Lord.

We cannot turn to Christianity for moral guidance unless it is true. But if it is true, then it must totally transform our understanding of goodness.

Christianity is not a recipe for improvement on an individual or a societal level. It is a personal relationship with God. That relationship is the root, the blessings and improvements to our character are the flower. Cut off from the root, all our lovely “morality” and “goodness” will wither and fade.

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Related posts:

Serious, not fanatical

Secular (in)Humanism

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Believing and understanding

Yesterday I wrote about 3000 words on the limitations of the scientific approach as a tool for discerning truth. Today I’d like to focus on just 3 words:

Credo ut Intelligam

“I believe so that I may understand”

As I discussed in the last two posts, scientific inquiry is limited by definition to the material universe. Supernatural influence on the material, or events limited entirely to the supernatural sphere, are in principle inaccessible to science (thanks to its assumption of materialism). But because of what I observe, what I experience, and what my reason tells me, I cannot endorse materialism as a worldview. I accept its usefulness as a scientific premise, but I do not accept its truthfulness.

The Latin motto above was written by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), who is regarded as the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. He held that belief in God is the only way to make sense of what we observe. Reason can expand on faith, but faith must precede reason.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, described the correct perspective of inquiry thus:

“Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the Author of good and Father of light.” (Novum Organum)

As a contrast, let’s see how far materialism can take us. Peter Atkins, Oxford chemist and caustic-tongued atheist, believes that, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Bertrand Russell described a common materialist position when he said:

“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

It is worth noting, however, that this extreme scientism is logically incoherent. It is itself not a statement of science but an article of blind faith. Thus by its own assertion we cannot know if it is true. (Note: I use the term “blind faith” because I believe that this statement describes a belief held in spite of evidence).

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, observes that scientism even denies the validity of any non-scientific fields such as philosophy, ethics, literature, poetry, art and music. He continues:

“Science can tell you that if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill her, but it cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea in order to get your hands on her property.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

I would suggest that it is possible to have such knowledge of right and wrong, even though it is beyond the scope of science.

We must also note the difference in confidence which can be attributed to the findings of various scientific disciplines, because the scientific methodology relies on repeatability. Experimental sciences can often confidently deduce what is likely to happen under certain controlled conditions. Sciences which deal with unrepeatable phenomena (such as palaeontology and cosmology) are more deductive, and their conclusions must necessarily be less authoritative.

Even amongst these “historical” sciences, we can only proceed scientifically by simulating repeatability: we compare several independent fossil progressions; we draw analogues to living animals. We study hundreds of galaxies, trying to find common trends. We look at the operation of physics on an experimentable scale and extrapolate the findings to a cosmological scale. The philosophy is the same, although there are greater practical limitations to the experimental possibilities.

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Natural law (and order)

C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Grand Miracle, gives a striking illustration of the conditional status of “laws of Nature”. As Nature is the field studied by science, this also illustrates the impossibility of using scientific inquiry to address the supernatural. In the passage, Lewis is in conversation with a materialist:

“Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the Laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them … I think the Laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.”

“Half a moment,” said I. “Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?”

“Of course,” said he, “provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.”

“Ah, but that’s the whole point,” said I. “The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the Laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted.”

“No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey tricks like that.”

“Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.”

Note that I do not wish to undermine the value of scientific inquiry into Nature: I believe that it has great power to give insight into the natural order. But I think it should be obvious that science has important limitations in what questions it can reasonably address.

Once we head into the realm of the truly unrepeatable, we are studying history. And now we are truly off the scientific map.

Is it possible to have knowledge of historical events? Of course.

There are even ways to assess the relative confidence of historical knowledge, such as the extent and concordance of contemporaneous records, literary criticism of written accounts, archaeological confirmation of records and forensic examination of evidence.

Miraculous events are unique. That’s what marks them as miracles – they defy the natural order. But they do not contradict science, because as we have seen, science deals explicitly with the normal workings of Nature in the absence of super-Natural interference.

Lewis elaborates:

“This point of scientific method merely shows (what no one to my knowledge ever denied) that if miracles did occur, science, as science, could not prove, or disprove, their occurrence. What cannot be trusted to recur is not material for science: that is why history is not one of the sciences. You cannot find out what Napoleon did at the battle of Austerlitz by asking him to come and fight it again in a laboratory with the same combatants, the same terrain, the same weather, and in the same age. You have to go to the records. We have not, in fact, proved that science excludes miracles: we have only proved that the question of miracles, like innumerable other questions, excludes laboratory treatment.” (The Grand Miracle)

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Overlap in the Magisterium?

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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Seeing the gardener

Douglas Adams, in a line oft-quoted by atheists, wrote once:

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

The suggestion is that this accurately portrays the relationship between observation of nature and belief in a creator God. In fact, it is a useless and highly misleading straw man argument.

A belief in fairies would be akin to believing in Bertrand Russell’s flying teapot – we don’t have any proof that there isn’t a teapot orbiting Mars, so why don’t we believe in that too? Again, this is an atheist straw man which grossly misrepresents the Christian belief in God.

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As John Lennox has pointed out, you are welcome to dismiss the idea of fairies, but it would be ridiculous to look at a beautiful garden and dismiss the idea of a gardener. And that is a more accurate reflection of the relationship between the God of the Christian faith and the created universe.

Sure, it’s possible that all the trees and flowers grew up from seeds that just randomly fell into perfectly arranged rows and patterns.

Maybe blind chance directed all the azaleas into one flower bed and all the petunias into another.

Perhaps it was purely mechanistic geological forces which directed the stones into a pattern which just happens to resemble a path.

We know that cows eat grass – maybe there was a herd of very light-footed cows that came and mowed the lawns – and just happened to nibble every blade to the same height. (After all, evolution seems to work on the micro scale, why not take it on blind faith that it works on the macro scale?)

Maybe all the apparent design is just an illusion.

But would this be reasonable?

My understanding of God makes sense of the universe that I see around me. The created order, to me, bears unmistakable hallmarks of its Creator.

Acknowledging the gardener makes sense of the beautiful garden that he has fashioned. Acknowledging the creator and sustainer of the Universe gives us insight into everything else we see. C. S. Lewis illustrated this perfectly when he wrote:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

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Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

On reading both books

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Children of God?

Note: In response to some comments that have come in, I should clarify that in this post I am not referring to agnosticism or even “passive” atheism. I am not talking about someone who is earnestly evaluating the evidence, but is unconvinced that faith in God is justified.

I am rather referring to an angry and aggressive denial of the Divine, which may bear more than a passing resemblance to a teenager slamming the door and screaming that they hate their parents.

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I recently read an article on “Motives for Atheism” by David Carlin. Among the various motives suggested (libertinism, intellectual laziness, etc) I was struck by one in particular:

Conspicuous Nonconformity

Some people like to be “different.” If they are teenage girls, they may color their hair orange or wear a ring through their nose. Prior to the sexual revolution, a teenage girl could differentiate herself from her peers by losing her virginity at an early age, an age at which almost nobody else would think of doing such a thing. But losing one’s virginity at an early age is too common an event to make a girl different nowadays … If they are teenage boys, they may talk very loud in inappropriate places or freely use obscenities in public. The point is to give offense to respectable opinion. In a cultural milieu in which everyone, or at least nearly everyone, takes it for granted that God exists, you can shock respectable opinion by openly announcing your atheism.

I find this interesting in light of the stage of life at which several prominent figures among the more militant atheists made their commitments to their creed:

  • Richard Dawkins rebelled against his “normal Anglican upbringing” as a teenager, and decided that God didn’t exist.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche dropped out of his theology studies at age 20 and became an atheist.
  • Bertrand Russell discarded his Christian faith at 18.

As Vox Day points out:

“The idea that there is any rational basis for atheism is further damaged by the way in which so many atheists become atheists during adolescence, an age that combines a tendency toward mindless rebellion as well as the onset of sexual desires that collide with religious strictures on their satisfaction.” (The Irrational Atheist)

I present, as food for thought, accounts of three men who went the same direction in their teenage years, but later changed their views:

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Francis Collins was formerly head of the Human Genome Project, and now serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health. A brillinat geneticist, he has been described as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. Collins was brought up as a “nominal Christian” but regarded himself as an atheist by graduate school. He came to Christianity aged 27, after mature reflection and an investigation of several faiths.

He described his experiences in an interview for Salon.com :

“I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn’t see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

“… So I set about reading about the various world religions, but I didn’t understand their concepts and their various dogmas. So I went down the street and met with a Methodist minister in this little town in North Carolina and asked him a number of blasphemous questions. And he smiled and answered a few them but said, “You know, I think you’d learn a lot if you’d read this book on my shelf. It was written by somebody who has traveled the same path — a scholar who was an atheist at Oxford and tried to figure out whether there was truth or not to religion.” The book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. And within the first three pages, I realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy.

“… As I read his arguments about the Moral Law — the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God — I began to realize the truth of what he was saying. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t go back to where I was. I could never again say atheism is the only logical choice for a scientifically trained person.

“After I had struggled with this for a couple of years … I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”

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C. S. Lewis also departed from his Christian upbringing in his rebellious teenage years. Born into a church-going family in Belfast, he became an atheist at the age of 15, mostly due to his struggles to reconcile a benevolent Creator God with the broken and wicked Creation which he saw. He was fond of quoting Lucretius (De rerum natura, 5.198–9):

“Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.”

But by 31, after years of wrestling with his philosophical demons, he described his acceptance of God in Surprised by Joy:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Lewis was possibly the greatest Christian writer of the 20th century. In addition to his masterpiece of apologetics, Mere Christianity, he continued to contend with the existence of evil. The Problem of Pain ranks among the finest works ever written on this difficult issue.

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Augustine of Hippo (aka St. Augustine) was born in 354 in Thagaste (in what is now Algeria). Although raised as a Christian, Augustine left the Church (much to the despair of his mother) and spent most of his teenage years as a wild and reckless delinquent. He hung around with the the euersores (or “wreckers”), who encouraged extreme sexual promiscuity (and were thus understandably popular with teenage boys).

In 384, at age 30, Augustine was awarded the most prestigious academic position in the Roman world, the Professor of Rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan. Three years later he underwent a profound personal transformation and converted to Christianity:

“Eagerly then I returned to the place where … I laid the volume of the Apostle … I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions, Book VIII)

More than 1600 years later his astoundingly deep understanding of the Christian faith and the nature of human psychology remains just as relevant. He was among the first to clearly articulate the interpretation of Genesis as a logical framework rather than a scientific treatise, and also a profound writer on the doctrines of Grace and of human frailty.

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Christopher Hitchens abandoned religion aged 9. His brother Peter recalls burning his own Bible at 15, but Peter returned to faith when he was 30.

We are all children of God, and we all go through our rebellious teenage years. Thank God that some of us grow out of them.

Secular (in)Humanism

From Wikipedia: “Secular Humanism is a humanist philosophy that espouses reason, ethics, and justice…”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here’s the problem:

Secular humanism is an example of what has been called “cut-flower” morality. That is to say that it has grown out of a Western culture rooted in Christian principles and ethics, and it assumes that it can cut off and keep those attractive aspects while discarding all that bothersome baggage of Christianity itself.

If we look a little further into – oh, let’s call them the “articles of faith”, for convenience – of the Council for Secular Humanism, we see that:

“… religious experience … redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural … We consider the universe to be … most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However, we find that traditional views of the existence of God … are meaningless”

“Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe.”

So let’s break that down for what it’s really saying:

  • Religious experience gives meaning to our lives, but is not related to any spiritual reality and is in fact a meaningless illusion.
  • Furthermore, we accept any evidence and are open to any new possibility as long as it has no theological implications, because those are a priori defined as rubbish.

We’ll leave this hit-and-miss adherence to scientific rigour for another discussion. But it’s the morality that I really want to examine in this essay:

“… secularists deny that morality needs to be deduced from religious belief … we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”

So, maximising human happiness is the ultimate goal, and while there is no “absolutist morality”, there are “objective standards”. It has been an ongoing (and notably unsuccessful) pet project of atheist philosophers for centuries to deduce a basis for objective morality apart from a theistic worldview, but let’s look at some specific examples. (Lest I be accused of cherry-picking particularly offensive statements made on an off day, I have included references to the relevant works if you would like to research them further).

Julian Huxley was the founding president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952, a broad umbrella organisation covering secular humanism, atheism, rationalism and the like. As well as being an extremely prominent secular humanist (and the first president of the British Humanist Association), he was a ground-breaking biologist in the field of evolutionary synthesis and the grandson of T. H. Huxley.

He was also a prominent member of the British Eugenics Society – indeed, was President of that institution from 1959-62. His view was that:

“The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore … they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation.” (Man in the modern world, 1947)

Another prominent voice among the secular humanists is Peter Singer, who is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and has held positions at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the University of Oxford. In 2004 he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. As well as supporting bestiality “as long as it’s not abusive to the animal”, Singer believes that early-term abortion is morally acceptable, not because of any usual pro-choice arguments, but because killing a human being is not necessarily wrong:

“[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.” (Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, 1994)

He extends this line of thought further, arguing that killing an infant which the parents do not want is morally acceptable, as it would result in more happiness overall than allowing the child to live. (For the full discussion, see Practical Ethics, 1993 – it’s too depressing to quote extended passages).

I have chosen these passages for this essay, not because they are morally repulsive and I wish to score an emotional point, but because they are the logical outworkings of a secular humanist worldview when applied consistently to the field of morality by the leaders in the movement.

What I am even more concerned with is why we find these concepts repulsive. It is not our rationality which objects – I suggest rather that it is specifically our humanity that is repulsed by infanticide and eugenics.  And I assert that the logical product of secular “humanism” is a coldly rationalist shell with all traces of humanity removed.

Can the flower of our morality survive without the nourishing root of a Christian worldview? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the finest commentator on the great Soviet experiment with institutional atheism in the 20th century, summarised his views thus:

“…if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

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Related posts:

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism

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Faith: reflecting on evidence

Update:

This post has been edited and expanded. The full version can be found here.

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There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.

But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.

On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”

This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.

On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:

“Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.

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Acceptance of evidence: the real issue

In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.

Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)

For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:

… true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”

Or, as the psalmist phrased it:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)

Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.

As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

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Lumpy atheism

I observe a strong resistance from atheists towards being “lumped together” with others who share their particular worldview. Considering that many of the most prominent atheists of the past century were such charming characters as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, I can understand the reticence. However, I do not observe the same aversion from atheists towards lumping all other religions together – and thus to Richard Dawkins, it seems that every theist is automatically equivalent to a young-Earth-Creationist / Islamic-Jihadist suicide bomber (depending of course on whether he wishes to conjure an illusion of ignorance or fear at that point).

Personally, I don’t lump atheists together because of similarity of lifestyle or personality. I’m not so concerned with whether or not the fervent and aggressive preaching style offered by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. is distasteful to a particular atheist. I am concerned more with whether there is an overlap in the substance and justification for their beliefs.

Let’s take an example of a similarly influential and prominent Christian writer, C. S. Lewis. There are certain viewpoints which Lewis expresses in his writing that I would disagree with, but I cannot object to being “lumped in” with Lewis as a Christian, because in the core articles of our faith we are virtually identical. There may be secondary issues of faith (trans-substantiation, for instance) that I disagree with the Pope about. There may be personal viewpoints which differ greatly between us. For that matter, although I would love to chat to him on matters spiritual, I don’t know how much I’d have in common personally with the apostle Paul. But the foundational doctrines of our faith: the divine creation of the universe; that God’s involvement in His creation is continually ongoing; the divinity of Jesus Christ; the redemption for sin offered by God in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the universal availability of that redemption to all who turn to Him … these we hold in common. And we also hold in common the acceptance that secondary theological issues are exactly that – secondary.

Now, if someone wants to quibble about whether young-Earth creationists are being scientifically disingenuous, or whether there is sufficient theological support for the doctrine of intercession of the saints, that’s fine. But to expand that sort of secondary issue as being an argument for or against Christianity is to elevate a very under-represented viewpoint to the position of official Christian straw-man, and does not do any credit to the discourse.

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Secular (in)Humanism

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Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

In a recent post I suggested an alternative take on Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA framework, in which religion and science occupy “nonoverlapping magisteria”. Richard Dawkins also has an alternative to the NOMA framework. It goes:

“Science tells us everything and what it doesn’t tell us isn’t important anyway la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you-so-stop-talking.”

I’m paraphrasing his words slightly, but I believe I have captured the thrust of his argument accurately. Let’s look in a little more detail at the perspectives of these two evolutionary biologists.

A common criticism of NOMA is that religion and science insist on interfering with one another, so we can’t really regard them as being non-overlapping. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that scientists and religious people keep commenting on each other’s fields. (Of course, when you have a scientist who is also religious, this issue becomes even muddier: my point is that we end up with a person making a religious comment based on a scientific perspective, and making scientific claims based on religious beliefs).

Note that Gould doesn’t simply say that the two fields are independent: he specifically says that they “bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border.” Of course, such a complex border would appear to be merely fuzzy from a distance, but it is exactly this interdigitation that we must explore. What Gould claims is that within every issue, whether moral or scientific, there are complex details which will fall into the domain of one or other field.

In our (very human) quest for meaning, even when operating as scientists, we have an inevitable tendency to add a moral and philosophical dimension to everything we see. It is an article of faith amongst materialist atheists that there is no deeper meaning to anything, but that is a religious statement masquerading as science. T. H. Huxley warned against this trend in his 1889 essay Agnosticism (in which he also first defined the title term):

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

If we look into areas of conflict between religion and science, I believe we generally see something like:

  1. Science announces a theory (which may or may not be true).
  2. A philosophical and/or moral dimension is added by either or both sides of the debate.
  3. Argument ensues about the philosophical/moral dimension, and is extrapolated back to the validity of the scientific claim.

It is precisely this combination of scientific conjecture and philosophical implication that Gould was referring to with his complex border. He did not believe that religious perspective would illuminate a specifically scientific question, but he also believed that it is irresponsible for a scientist to add a philosophical aspect to any thesis in his capacity as a scientist. When Dawkins claims that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”, he is most assuredly not making a scientific claim, and thus even under a NOMA framework, it is entirely appropriate to respond to him from a religious perspective.

This temptation to proclaim on topics far beyond his field of expertise seems to be irresistible to Dawkins. He further claims that: “A universe with a God would look quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific.” But different from what? We live in and experience and can observe precisely one universe. How can that possibly be a scientific statement? It is akin to saying, “The Big Bang was very different from all the other Big Bangs which have happened”; or, “Life based on complex organic molecules is very different from all the other life we observe”. It is ridiculous. Gould was more honest about the limitations of science, saying: “Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.” (Scientific American, 1992)

Let us examine another pair of quotes from Dawkins:

  • “What has ‘theology’ ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has ‘theology’ ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (Letter to The Independent, 20 March 1993)
  • “If you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so.” (The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, 12 Nov 1996)

Thus according to Dawkins, science is morally silent, and yet theology is completely useless. But if science is all that there is, what morality could possibly guide our actions? Can science seriously hold the weight of ethical decisions? In light of these opinions, it becomes easier to understand how Dawkins reaches the conclusion that “[his] belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.” (Interview with Justin Brierley, 21st October 2008)

This is, tragically, the despairing depth in which we find ourselves in the absence of a theologically-guided moral imperative. Far wiser was Gould, who wrote in his essay “Nonmoral Nature” (Natural History, February 1982):

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians … indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On reading both books

Overlap in the Magisterium?

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Cures for the Healthy

I was recently invited to attend (as a guest, not a speaker) a debate entitled: “Belief: Poison or Cure? – An Atheist and a Christian present their case for or against faith“. As the invitation put it, “The UCT Atheist & Agnostic society and the UCT Student Y present a public debate on the subject of faith. Jordan Pickering (Student Y Staff, BTh) will outline some key reasons why Biblical faith is essential to a satisfying worldview, and Tauriq ‘Easton Ellis’ (AAS, ex-Islamic agitator) will reveal some of the inadequacies of belief.

I declined because I thought that it was unlikely to be an intellectually useful experience. Debates of this nature generally involve blind zealotry on the part of the atheist community – saying things like “religion is the cause of all the death and suffering in the world over the past thousand years!” (which nicely ignores that under the firmly atheist rules of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, et. al., life was just swell and everyone got along great). On the religious side, there is often an ill-advised attempt to reason a justification of faith as a good thing for the human condition, or to employ poorly-presented and questionable science as evidence. I also had a strong suspicion that there would be very little persuasive discussion taking place – more like two groups of fervent ideologists lining up for a polite version of a street brawl.

But I’ve been thinking (as I am sometimes wont to do), and it occurs to me that a debate is perhaps not the best forum for such a discussion. Debates are best confined to contentious issues on which public opinion is moot. There is considerable support (from an ethical, sociological or whatever other perspective) for each point of view, so a debate is a useful way to allow both sides to have a public discussion and respond to each other’s points. But it’s important to realise the limitations of debate – its usefulness as a medium is strictly confined to matters of opinion.

Indulge me in a little tangent. In many ancient cultures, the Earth (or whatever small region of the planet the society was familiar with) was considered to be overwhelmingly the largest and most significant object in the universe. There was a small, very bright object (crazy people called it a ball of burning gasses, but the clever ones knew it was really the chariot of Apollo or whatever local custom held) which gave warmth and light and went across the sky each day. There was another object, about the same size but much less bright and of inconstant shape, which traversed the sky at odd times (though most noticably at night). There were other tiny lights which hung in the night sky, just out of reach. But Earth was the only real heavyweight in this arena.

Then something happened. People started to become aware that their view was flawed – for a start, the whole Sun-Earth rotation thing was the wrong way around. And wait, the moon is actually tiny compared with the sun, but the Sun is unimaginably far away. And as for the stars – not only are most of them actually bigger than the Sun, but we don’t even have units to deal with how far away they are. Better invent some new ones quick. Wow, this is getting out of control. Oh, wait, now you say that our entire galaxy, which is massive beyond mortal comprehension, is in fact an insignificant speck in the vastness of the Universe? I think I need to sit down.

No really, I do need a seat. And a drink – better make it a strong one. I mean, here I was, human society, master of the known world, and now I find that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, I’m a microscopic dot on a miroscopic dot on a miroscopic dot with a little sign saying “You Are Here”. I feel so small. So insignificant. Do you have any idea what this does to my self-esteem?

I tell you what – maybe we should have a debate about whether or not the universe really is that big, or whether the Earth is big and important and the stars are actually little fairy lights floating just above our heads. I mean, sure there is some indicators pointing one way, but I don’t really understand most of that, and anyway I liked it better the other way.

But, you see, having a debate won’t influence any of that. The Universe is massive beyond comprehension, and the Earth, as dear as it is to all of us, really is miniscule in comparison. It’s not open to discussion. It’s just the way it is.

And whether you consciously accept Him or not, God doesn’t cease to exist because of your opinion. He is, was, will be – you get the drift. It’s not something open to discussion, either.