(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
I’m doing a little series this week responding to a Facebook post by a friend of mine named Daniel Bastian. He outlined twenty things that would make him change his mind about Atheism. The piece is well-organized and thought out, I encourage everyone to read it and wrestle through it themselves.
In line with my belief that these sorts of discussions always seem to end up at differences in hermeneutics (interpretive filters) rather than facts, I wrote a post talking about what appeared to be Daniel’s bigger commitments and understandings of the world, human reason, and assumptions about spirituality (also read the Facebook comments).
I was, of course, accused of still not engaging with his specific points, even as I sought to talk about principles behind the points. And so, I’m excited to say that with today and tomorrow, we will be hitting many of Daniel’s specific points
A Simplistic Science & a Godless Evolution
In the first point of the post, Daniel mentions evolution as a reason he doesn’t believe in Christianity. But, he doesn’t go at it the way you’re thinking. He’s quite aware of many Christians (including yours truly) that see evolution as bearing beautiful truths within Christian spirituality.
Daniel isn’t saying that if evolution is true then the Bible itself must be false, as if a literalistic reading of the text were the only “true” reading. Instead, he emphasizes evolution’s “chance” nature and the “accident” it seems that we humans are. Later, Daniel also days that the fact that homo sapiens became almost extinct throughout their history, and the fact that we are all made of the same “stuff” as the universe, all shows the lack of a “specialness” that humans occupy in the apparent grand scheme of things.
The scientific usage of the word “chance” is not a statement describing the process, but describing our own inability to predict how the process will turn out. Flipping a coin is scientifically “random”–a “chance” event. We can guess with probability whether it will be heads or tails, but science can never know for sure. But surely the fact that we don’t know which one it will be doesn’t mean that there’s not an active agent flipping the coin in the first place, right? The unpredictability of a process simply cannot speak to that.
The Bible itself says that any number of probabilistic, seemingly aimless process are means by which God exercises his Providence. People have, for a long time now, known about things that appear without goal, purpose, or clear predictability. And yet, they’ve had no problem saying that God is exercising Providence within them.
And no, this isn’t a “God of the gaps” argument. I’m not saying that God is any more present in unpredictable processes than predictable. To think that merely explaining a process (even completely) removes God, is skipping a few logical jumps ahead. Why does a process need God before there could be the possibility that He is in it?
This is why the Christian Doctrine of Creation is one borne out of the Love of God. There is a dynamic interplay between Nature and its God.
As just one example of how Christianity can offer a fuller, more nuanced and complex perspective on this, a couple of years ago I read this paper by a Christian physicist. In it, he wonders if the “randomness” and “chaos” of quantum level might be the very place where God exercises his will, and then works its way up from there. He wondered if God’s working in the “free” chaos might not work out some issues concerning free will (our volition is many steps removed from the quantum level, so if that’s where God exercises Providence, then we are still freely moving in line with it).
Yes, I understand that evolution is a passive process; there’s no clear “goal” towards which it is actively heading. And this is why one cannot predict which traits might survive and stick around. It inherently seems cold and neutral as to which species will flourish and which will die.
But that’s why, though yes, it’s most certainly a circular argument, I stand by it: the fact that we humans beat every statistical chance that we would survive and arrive to where we are today is, I think, a sign for Providence working in the midst of the process, rather than against.
What would be the alternative for those that agree with the Facebook post, I wonder? Would they have any less skepticism if the account of our evolution was so sure and fully explained by natural processes? If there were absolutely no “messiness” in how we came about? Would they not then say that a god was altogether unnecessary, and that Occam’s Razor demanded we got rid of the unnecessary agent?
So are they trying to have it both ways? “It’s too aimless! Therefore, no God! What if it were goal-oriented? Then, no God!”
No one can read the Bible and come to the conclusion that the God of Christianity is one that does things by paying any particular attention to “specialness”. In fact, this is actually part of the beauty and counter-intuitive nature of our faith.
Yahweh begins his redemptive work by approaching a Babylonian farmer. He makes a group of slaves as his own. He lets them go into captivity. And by the way, if you don’t think God’s people weren’t wrestling with their idea of “specialness” after that, you’d be crazy. But guess what? God’s people still found continued belief in their God to be reasonable even after that attack on their unique identity.
Continuing the story, a random construction worker from rural Palestine ends up being the Messiah of the world and growing up in the midst of one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups of the day. God dies. A group of women are the first witnesses to his Resurrection, and a human book written by those impacted by this God, ends up being a primary meeting place between God and his people.
And you think that the fact that we’re not the center of the universe or even a logical, predictable output of its process is some sort of argument against a God who claims to move from the weakest and poorest and least-sensical on up?
The Christian God, as he seems to be throughout the Scriptures, is one that would absolutely bring renewal to the cosmos through one guy dying among one people on one planet that’s not the center if the universe. It’s just the kind of backward, counter-intuitive thing he would do.
Continuing this idea that there’s nothing “special” to us, Daniel mentions the fact that we are, literally, made up of matter from ancient stars. And so, we’re not even of unique substance, how could we be some sort of special race among animals?
The fact that we’re all made of the same “stuff” is actually incredibly important to the Christian story of Redemption. When Jesus shows up on the scene, because he is an evolved homo sapien male whose evolutionary line goes all the way back to those very stars, he carries the entire history of the cosmos leading to him in his physical body. And so, when he physically dies, and rises, he is actually raising the entire universe’s history within himself. The Cross speaks to our common descent and Jesus’ Resurrection speaks to a “common ascent” for the entire universe–a universe all made up of the same “star stuff”.
Lastly, there are indeed responses out there for how death, suffering, and extinction, the vehicles of evolution, can have their proper place in the Christian Gospel (much more detailed treatments can be found here and here).
So once again, the Christian account of the world and science is far more complex than Daniel gives it credit for, it seems. I love how Keith Miller puts it, when he calls this an “evolving creation”. We are both evolved and created, and there is such a mysterious dance between the two that mere observation of evolutionary processes cannot fully describe it.
A Parting Word on Evidence
I can hear the responses now: okay, maybe you showed how there could be a possible world where Christianity isn’t the enemy of Science, but you’ve given no evidence for why we must import this unnecessary God into the picture? Sure, God could be involved in evolution and all this other stuff, but so could Dawkins’ fabled Flying Spaghetti Monster! What evidence is there that we should add this God?
I will confess, the reason why I think we should include this God is because it is more compelling. As I tried to stress yesterday, I honestly believe that we as humans are not simply embodied cognitive machines that are just sucking up evidence and evaluating it all the time. I think that we assent to things, often times, more because they are compelling rather than “simply” convincing.
I freely admit: if this material world is all there is, then Atheism is indeed the truest, most logical response. And that’s because “evidence” belongs to the realm of this material world. For things beyond it, material “evidence” is not the criteria by which it is judged. There are simply no easy answers to the demands for evidence–it’s not there, in any material sense. But it’s not because God is playing a game with us. As I tried to explain yesterday in the Facebook comments, this whole discussion of God is something that transcends the realm of reason and evidence. That is simply not the plane on which this can be proven.
When evaluating how compelling something is, it is not a simple matter of evidence and reason, but also things like aesthetics, story, and even existential implications. This is the holistic, complex, nuanced Christian idea of truth.
For example, the Bible claims a mantle of truth for itself, and yet it is not a book of history and science by any strict definition. It is story. It its progress. It is art. And it bears the bumps and bruises of its dynamic history. This is a picture of what Christian Truth often looks like: beaten up, bloodied, and crucified; more at home with the poor and the hurting than the in the highest halls of rhetoric and power.
And this is why my post yesterday frustrated so many people. There is indeed a view of the world in which Atheism is the most compelling option out there. But this view of the world, as I’ve been repeating over and over again, is one that doesn’t explain our intuitions, isn’t beautiful, doesn’t offer a story that makes sense of our existential realities, and does not inspire and give strength for life to be lived as we believe it is the most fulfilling to live it.
Years ago, I wrote a piece in Patrol Magazine about Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens’ brother. Peter is a Christian, and when asked in an interview about whether he thought Christopher would ever convert, he said this:
It is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time.
In short, a conception of the world in which Atheism is the conclusion–and where evidence rules all–is far, far too small for our world as it really seems to be.
Oh, one last (tongue-in-cheek) note
Daniel says that Andromeda is the “appointed destroyer” of our universe. Actually, from what I understand, the slowly increasing brightness of the sun would destroy all life a few billion years before Andromeda ever came our way. Boo-yah.