(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
In this series of exchanges with my friend Daniel, I’ve tried to argue that his Facebook post on why he is an Atheist expressed an overall view of the world that is too small and too simplistic. I think this is because of his empiricist method and materialist conclusion about reality–that all there is is what we can see, touch, feel, etc.
Some concluding remarks
My whole point has not simply been that Daniel’s facts or even his method is wrong. But rather, it finds its proper place, meaning, fullness, and possibility within the Christian view of reality. I have argued in each of my posts that Christianity does not “refute” reason, science, history, skepticism, textual messiness, historical difficulty, or even doubt. Instead, the Gospel encompasses it all, and each of those things find a greater fulfillment in their use, cohesion in the whole of the world, and reality within that place.
I have said that even his Atheism is too small, as even that finds its fullest expression within Christianity. As I’ve said before, Christians make the best Atheists (Dostoevsky said as much as well).
As an analogy, I’d say the whole of the world and reality is similar to Gestalt perception ideas. Where, as the line goes, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” For example, look at the image to the left. Daniel’s view is likened to saying, “there are simply three shapes there.” I can fully acknowledge that, but then I’d say that, even within those shapes, there is another shape–a triangle–resonating from within in. He would then ask me to offer evidence of this, and I would simply have to say it’s a matter of perception and a greater principle at work than “mere” sight. He would then ask me to justify my belief using only the three shapes and their own mathematical proportions to prove there was indeed a triangle there as well, and of course, using only the means and methods of the “Pac-Men”, one cannot prove that there is a triangle.
This is the spirit in which I have said that Daniel’s original post represented a “simplistic” view of the world, leading to “simplistic” conclusions, leading to his Atheism. I find myself compelled by the story of Christianity, and the picture of the world it paints.
I picked up my copy of N.T. Wright’s amazing The New Testament and the People of God to refresh myself as to what he might say. He has an amazing section defending his way at belief, which is called critical realism. He points out that, according to empiricism, we are in continual interaction with the external world and we form hypotheses and theories in response to what we observe. But empiricists sometimes naively assume that beliefs spring magically from our sense-data.
But this neglects the very realm within which all of this musing about reality occurs. As I said in a Facebook comment yesterday:
I do believe that we are fundamentally epistemological storytellers. That we form our identities as we tell our stories of ultimate significance. We are–before we are anything else–“walking narratives”. Which is why I find the standard of what’s “compelling” (in an ULTIMATE sense) so powerful. No other religion has been able to cross racial, ethnic, geographic, age, intelligence, or class lines like Christianity. There is something utterly unique and–yes–“compelling” in a way that I cannot give a material account for.
Our beliefs are formed not on the plane of reason, but on the plane of “story”. As Wright goes on to say, our sense data “needs a larger framework on which to draw, a larger set of stories about things which happen in the world” and Daniel’s worldview seems to understate that “every human community shares and cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations, anxieties, and so forth, which encourage its members to construe reality in particular ways”.
Daniel seems to discount this, thinking that the scientific method overcomes this. I don’t. I see a need for revelation, when it comes to Ultimate reality. We need a God to come among us and reveal himself because we could not devise him on our own through logical deduction or even reasonable discourse. We need conversion, not deduction.
To use an overused C.S. Lewis quote: 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.
And so, as has been my usual tactic for these discussions, I find the story and picture of reality that Christianity paints to make far more sense of the world than Materialist Atheism. And I will continue to proclaim that Story as the Story to which all others are submitted, and the one that also far surpasses the others in scope, explanatory power, and, (in my opinion) most importantly, Beauty.
Okay, now for what you really came to read.
What would convince me to be an Atheist?
In Daniel’s original post, he asked Christians to make similar lists of what would turn them away from Christianity. None of his points were in isolation, as if that one thing would turn him, or that it would be an immediate and total change. Rather, some of those points would give him serious pause and re-evaluation. Second, it’s important to remember that his points, and mine, are ultimately subjective reasons for ourselves, and not logical deductions that need resonate with everyone. Also, several of his points were simply not possible to have happen (as in “If we had a different kind of Bible”). This is all well and fine. I only say that so that everyone knows that it is within these parameters I write this list of things that would lead me towards Atheism.
1. If we found Jesus’ body. And no, the Jesus ossuary doesn’t count. This would make me an Atheist in an instant. The historical, bodily Resurrection of Jesus is the hinge around which all Christianity turns. If his body were proven to have been found. I would abandon Christianity altogether and join the precise worldview of Daniel. Some might say they’d remain “spiritual” while not Christian. I’m with St. Paul, however, in saying, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
2. If the earliest Christian traditions did not include the idea of a physical bodily Resurrection. This would need to be verified by new documents showing widespread Christian belief in a “spiritual” resurrection, or some other thing other than the Resurrection. I understand people already make this claim, but this claim is based more on silence, filling in gaps, and is an interpretation of current data, not a conclusion from it.
3. If an alternate explanation for the rise of Christianity was given. The development and rise of Christianity–in its scope, diversity, speed, and geography–is something that, in my opinion, is completely unparalleled and only truly explained by something actually having happened on Easter morning. No other possible explanation has been offered to me that doesn’t seem to stretch the evidence, fill in a lot of gaps without warrant, and overall seem unreasonable. I understand a lot of skepticism on this point comes from the assumed small probability that a Resurrection would occur, rather than evidence, but I still find that the Resurrection makes sense of the evidence more than anything else history has ever seen or known.
4. If Isaiah 53 was written after Christ. The greatest document among the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Great Isaiah Scroll, containing the entire book of Isaiah, including Chapter 53. To me, in my times of doubt, this chapter is the clearest prophecy about Jesus, and even includes details of his life that are talked about by non-biblical sources centuries later. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, people could have perhaps said that Christians went in and added this prophecy, but with the discovery of the scrolls, we have (and I have laid my own eyes upon) the words of this chapter written on documents that existed well before Jesus.
5. If the Old Testament didn’t seem like the perfect precursor to the new. If the Old Testament just didn’t have so many darn “types” and foreshadows of the Gospel and Christ. They’re just ambiguous enough that one couldn’t anticipate Jesus just by looking at them, but they’re clear enough that in hindsight, they make so much sense. If this were not the case, this would bother me. Consider Joseph: a man despised by the people he grew up among, sent to the pit of death and slavery, put between two criminals, says to one “your gonna live”, the other “you’re gonna die”, exalted from the “grave”, raised to the right hand of Pharaoh, and the nations come to him to be fed the bread of life in the time of drought. Was I being creative there? Yeah, but there’s plenty more where that came from. (See my Bible Survey Class for more on that.)
6. If Christianity didn’t have such versatility, depth, and diversity. I don’t know of any other way of viewing the world that has such implications for every part of it. It cuts across every boundary line of geography, race, class, and ethnicity, and it’s the only way of thinking that has done this (not even secular humanism or empiricism can boast this). The Gospel can be grasped by the youngest child (or perhaps even unborn child), and yet can be the subject of centuries of the highest and most respected scholarly research and development. It has been able to find its place in any type of society and yet hold continuity to its greatest essentials. The greatest scientists of the Scientific Revolution were Christians. Many of the greatest artists were Christians. It strikes intellect, soul, heart, and real, everyday, mundane life.
7. If Sacraments were not a thing. God always works and reveals himself by way of material mediators. I have certainly experienced this. If the God of Christianity were completely disembodied or abstract and the only place of his material presence that I (or anyone) could know was the Resurrection of the past, this would bother me. But the fact that, week after week, I truly do meet God’s tangible Presence in his Word, His People, Preaching, and in the Communion Elements, shows that he is still around, and actively so.
8. If the world was destroyed, and Jesus didn’t come back. If there was a meteor coming, and would be destroying all of humanity, then a few minutes before impact, I’d probably become an Atheist. (Note: a commenter below thought I was referring to the Rapture. Good God, I promise I’m not. I’m merely talking about a naturalistic calamity.)
9. If a completely material account could be given for the rise of justice, beauty, and love. It would need to be an account that did justice to the fullness of awe and transcendence those things evoke. I can see how our evolutionary capacity and skill for these things would have developed. And I understand that the primary place where we experience them is in our brain. But still, there’s something “more”, “Other”, and “external” about each of these things that hints that they are things that exist outside of us that we experience (hello, Plato!).
10. If an Atheist could give me a full, convincing accounting for why they believe in morality and justice. This is more specific than the last point. I know it seems like a silly, over-the-top argument. But seriously, I don’t see why an Atheist should care about genocide, or get mad if I just walk up and slap their significant other. I understand they do care, and they feel proud of themselves for being so “aware of their own evolutionary tendencies” to work against them for a “better world”, but I don’t see any evolutionary accounting for why they have this particular view of a “good world” or why they would want to pursue it. It is simply an untested, un-defended “intuition” that they agree we can and (for some reason) should work towards. But I would need a better purely materialistic explanation than that to find it convincing. And not some weak “social cohesion” thing either.
11. If animals did art. Seriously. There is such a huge gulf between humans and animals in this respect. Yes, animals can do “art-like” things in controlled settings, given the tools and encouragement to do so by humans. But in nature, you never see “less evolved” art. It seems that every part of us has evolved in slow transitional steps, but not our desire to create–or appreciate–art. And not just any art, but absolutely useless art (in the Wilde sense)–art that has no utility whatsoever and just exists because it deserves to. This is something that no species before homo sapiens has ever had the idea on its own to do. To me, this is weird. To be an atheist, I’d need this explained.
12. If Hopkins, Roethke, Rachmaninov, Bach, Miles Davis, stringed instruments, Caravaggio, and Rothko didn’t exist. No, I’m not trying to be cute. The transcendence of these things testifies to something far beyond a simple arrangement of noises, words, or paint. As I said in an earlier comment, Christopher Hitchens’ brother even said, concerning any chance of his brother’s possible conversion, “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.”
13. If everything: my intuitions, my loves, my affections, my joys, my sorrows–in essence–my story could be given an entirely rational, material accounting that really did encompass all the sensations I’ve ever had. If there came about, someday, a computer (or some other process) that could tell one’s entire story, with an accounting of their complete biochemical and sociological history such that one’s existence (even their random experiences of transcendence) could be represented in binary codes. In other words, if even our sense of awe, justice, and beauty could be artificially recreated, that would mess with my head and faith.
14. If Near Death Experiences were fully explained. This episode of an unlikely podcast blew my mind on this topic. I know, I know. This is usually a silly thing to bring up in these “Serious” conversations, but still, I’m still kind of riding the high of that podcast. More and more scientific evidence is mounting that our consciousness is “non-local” (not simply arising from our brains). I know science is seeking a naturalistic explanation, but until they do, I find this really compelling evidence for “the soul”. (Later, I wrote this clarifying comment below: Maybe I should be more specific. I don’t mean NDE’s like seeing heaven and such. I meant more like when people have conscious experiences while technically dead. When their consciousness can see over a shelf or float around the room and such when they should be dead. Non-local consciousness. That’s all I’m talking about. But no, I promise I’m not talking about “90 minutes in heaven” or anything.)
15. If Science’s sudden turn against theism didn’t look entirely like a culturally-conditioned movement of the moment, rather than a natural by-product in the pursuit of truth. The greatest scientists, historians, scholars, thinkers, writers, and such have all been Christians, and only until fairly recently. This whole separation between religious belief and even empiricism is really, really new (in the grand scope of human time). Call it an evolution of thought if you want. I wonder if it’s just a socio-cultural historical spasm or temper tantrum.
16. If I lost hope that people could change or that the Gospel didn’t “work”. I’ve written about this before. Human change is such a difficult, mysterious process. I genuinely have seen the Gospel change people at such deep levels, more than anything else has. Even though I struggle with changing myself, others’ stories have encouraged me. The Gospel makes claims about what it does in societies and people, and I still see evidence that this is the case. If I stopped seeing that, then I’d begin to question things more.
17. If the Gospel was no longer stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful and explanatory of the entire universe. If I became convinced that there was a greater communion with humanity and the world, sense of purpose, and experience of transcendence in Atheism, I’d consider it.
18. If I tried Atheism long enough. I truly believe that the perceptual “muscles” used to gather “religious” knowledge is like a muscle that grows weaker with time not exercising it. In other words, there is a way to truth that is only known from “inside” the “Christian knowledge circle”. When you’re outside of it, one’s ability to see this or resonate with it dulls. I feel my inner-Atheist to such a degree, that if I removed myself from means of grace and communion and all those other ways and places I meet God, I could probably become an Atheist. This would not be true of everyone, but it might be true for me.
19. If Daniel’s kind of god were true and Christianity made perfect, logical, evidentiary, reasonable sense. Honestly, if the requirements of God as laid out in Daniel’s post were actually answered in those terms, then I’d become an Atheist. Because then, I’d no longer have any place to incorporate suffering, doubt, and real human experience. If Christianity wasn’t nitty-gritty, earthy, messy, and soily. If it answered every “why?”. In other words, if the God of Christianity were able to be submitted wholly to human reason, as Daniel wants, then he would not be a God worth worshiping or believing in at all.
20. If God changed me into an Atheist. In the end, though, what could make me an Atheist? Nothing a human could do. Spirituality is not fundamentally a human enterprise. There is no new “fact” or “event” that I think would pull me away. It is a deeper, more existential state that arises from a communion with the Numinous, the Other, the One within whom all of reason and logic is grounded. Every “fact” is appropriated within him, and so no new “fact” could disprove Him any more than a child can disprove they had a parent. And so, in the end, I don’t know that, working within an empirical worldview, I could ever “discover” or “come across” any tangible thing (or even experience!) that would negate my faith as it seems it has Daniel’s.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
–Isa.55:8-9 (also in the Dead Sea Scrolls, haha)
I appreciated this exchange with Daniel, and thank him for playing along. I also invite critiques and responses from readers of this post and series.