Listening to Atheism

Frazier CraneYears ago there was a book entitled Listening to Prozac . I don’t want to suggest by my title that I think Atheism is a mental illness that requires medication. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or dismissive as to think those who fundamentally disagree with me are wicked or insane or both,  though some prominent Atheists have said as much about Christianity. As I’ve mentioned a few times, for whatever reason, I have a soft spot for atheists. Today I want to look at an atheist who seems to have a soft spot for Christians. Jason Rosenhouse has written a book entitled Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolution Front Line. I won’t go into a critique of his ideas about the Creation/Evolution/ID debate in this post. We can save that for another time. What I am interested in his opening chapter entitled “My Problems with Religion.” I want you, dear reader, and I to do exactly what my title says. Honestly listen to this particular atheist and thoughtfully respond. In order  to do that, I’m going to attempt to summarize Rosenhouse’s chapter accurately and fairly. And then I’m going to stop. I’m going to ask you to do the same. I’ll save my critique until next week. Norman Geisler once said that atheists should be respected as the loyal opposition because they make us stronger and better.

Rosenhouse begins by admitting that “religion is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating . . .” This seems to be evident throughout his book. He tells of attending many Christian conferences especially ones on intelligent design. Rosenhouse is a mathematician (Assoc. prof at James Madison University) who has written popular books on the math behind Sudoku, among other scholarly works. From the start, Rosenhouse makes clear that while he is an atheist, he is also respectful:

I am an atheist. That means that I do not believe in God. It does not mean that I am metaphysically certain there is no God, that I wallow in nihilism and moral relativism, that I think science has explained everything, that I think religious people are stupid–or that I partake in any of the other asinine caricatures of atheistic belief you may have heard.

This admission alone gives me pause. He doesn’t think religious people are stupid. Misguided. Wrong. but not stupid. In fact, Rosenhouse comes off as someone who is genuinely baffled by religious people as if there is sincere puzzlement at what it is that we religious folks are on about.

As you can imagine, it is a source of frustration to me that most of my fellow Americans see things differently. . . I wonder what religious folks know that I do not. Do they have some insight that I lack?

Now that’s an honest question. And it deserves an honest answer. But not right now. Right now, I’m listening. He goes on to detail the things he finds baffling about religion. What is interesting is, however, is what he gets about religion. If by religion we mean, “cultural identity and social community,” then that isn’t baffling at all. This is interesting to me because of all of the talk about “community” within our modern church movement. Community makes sense to Rosenhouse. Its doctrine that offends:

Whatever else it is, religion is also about putting forth a large collection of propositions relating to matters of empirical fact–many of which seem highly dubious. That the earth is superintended by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all loving God is already a tough sell given ludicrous quantities of rottenness in the word.

I know, I know. Some of you Christians are thinking, how can a worldview that explains everything in terms of four fundamental forces and atomic particles have room for “rottenness” other than as a purely subjective concept, but temper your ardor and listen. If God exists then there is rottenness to explain. One way of dealing with rottenness in the world is simply to believe it is meaningless–the result of a random world filled with human beings acting on deep biological urges. In fact, apart from God, that seems the best, most rational way of explaining all the rottenness. But evil isn’t the only thing he finds baffling–Jesus really puzzles him as well:

I have been told repeatedly, by people genuinely concerned about my soul, that Jesus was God in human form, lived a sinless life, and died on the Cross in payment for sins I would commit thousands of years later. They warn of the gruesome fate awaiting me in the afterlife, pending my failure to get with the program. In their more poetic moments they tell me I have a God-shaped hole in my heart that only Jesus can fill. I do not understand how people come to believe such remarkable things.

And to those who would begin running an argument about the historicity of Jesus’ claims, Rosenhouse admits that he sees no reason to think the Bible is anything special:

People keep telling me that the Bible has significance far exceeding its historical and literary value, sometimes  describing it with phrases like “the Word of God.” It i unclear to me what reason there is for thinking it is any such thing.

At this point, Rosenhouse begins to expound his frustration with Religion’s power and authority to explain the natural world. What he says will seem very familiar to those of us who have listened to debates about science and religion. What is interesting is that he immediately heads off the claim that science and religion are simply two separate spheres–neighbors with no direct conflict.

What has religion actually given us to justify its status as a “way of knowing”? By what method do I distinguish correct theological assertions from incorrect ones? How is “bad theology” different from “theology I happen to dislike”?

This is an honest longing to have religious questions answered in the same way that scientific questions are answered. Rosenhouse seems to desire the same level of precision in questions of faith as in testing hypotheses in physics or mathematics. And before we criticize him for that we should listen.  For Rosenhouse the concept of a purely spiritual being with a mind (but no physical brain) is not ludicrous but simply baffling:

We are told that God exists outside of time and that to Him the past, present, and future exist simultaneously. It is possible to write those words, but can you really picture what they mean . . . Just to be clear: My point is not that my failures of imagination show that God does not exist. It is simply that invoking God to explain the universe seems like an instance of the cure being worse than the disease or of filling one hole by digging others.

If I understand him, Rosenhouse is saying that yes Atheism (and its worldview of physicalism and empiricism) has its difficulties but they are preferable to the metaphysical difficulties of free-will and divine foreknowledge and eternal timelessness. He continues:

We can hypothesize that the sorts of natural forces that have adequately explained 99% of everything are also adequate for the few puzzles that remain. The alternative involves inventing an omnipotent deity, thereby saddling ourselves with a collection of conceptual difficulties far more disturbing than anything found in nature. In the end I am not an atheist because I thereby have a ready answer to every existential question. Atheism just makes fewer demands on my credulity

And there we have the crux of the debate when Atheists and Christians sit down and talk–how big a chasm is there between a scientific mind and faith in Christ. Believers think that chasm is not so great–that one does not have to commit intellectual suicide in order to “get with program” to use Rosenhouse’s phrase. Atheists, think that gap is a gaping chasm and on the other side is a kind of passivity about some of the most important questions in the universe and likely a smug, condescending sympathy for the poor benighted folk  who refuse to give up their intellectual freedom and integrity. The real debate between Atheists and Christians is how wide is that gap. Christians try to claim the gap is not so wide by marshaling intellectual arguments for God’s existence, the historicity of the Bible (mostly to prove the historicity of the Resurrection). We spend a great deal of our time our claims are not all that fantastical. We also criticize the scientific mind on the other side of the gap. We criticize modernity and say things like “I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be an Atheist” And so both sides scratch their heads from across the divide. What to do? Well, part of the answer is to take their bafflement seriously and address their puzzles and not get bogged down into debates that don’t do anything to argue the divide is not so big. However, we do Christianity a disservice when we try to deny the divide exists. Scientific materialism and Religious faith are not simply two different spheres. They are two opposing ideas. Any attempt to make them neighbors only adds to the atheists frustration and perplexity. It certainly doesn’t make the divide look any easier. Also if Rosenhouse is right, it won’t do any good to simply hide our allegiance to doctrine like an unsightly stain on the carpet when company comes over. For Rosenhouse, our doctrine is the sticking point and it will not make Christianity any more palatable if we try to de-emphasize it with bromides about community and authenticity. As for the rest, I’ll leave my thoughts for next post. What I am going to do is pray. Pray for wisdom far above my meager philosophical understanding and patience and humility to honestly listen to what Rosenhouse has argued here. I pray that I can see in his argument not only what he thinks is there but what we both may be missing. As always I invite your comments as I work out my response with fear and trembling.


Listening to Atheism — 4 Comments

  1. I am having a very hard time with my faith right now because the atheists I have read are making the most sense. The deeper I look into it, the more problems I am finding with Christianity. Sometimes I call them ‘plot holes’ because it is the same feeling I have when I am picking apart a bad movie.

    What it comes down to for me, is that the premise of atheism / materialism, does a better job of predicting the reality we see around us. If we are all products of natural selection and our consciousness just comes from our brain chemistry, then it would make sense that humanity would turn out the way it has. Not only evil and suffering, which are the obvious problems, but also weird and arbitrary quirks in our anatomy that do not seem like the result of good design. We get kidney stones. Growing teeth is very painful for infants. Then they fall out when you turn six and you get your actual teeth! Until you’re 20 and your wisdom teeth start hurting. The appendix.

    Materialism explains this simply and elegantly – we have leftover bits from our evolutionary ancestors that once served a purpose but are now obsolete. Believing in God, you have to all kinds of cartwheels to explain things like this, and the answer usually sounds pretty flimsy. or just ignore it altogether, which is what I’ve done for most of my life.

    The author says he cannot understand how anyone can come to believe these ‘remarkable things,’ but it doesn’t seem that complicated to me. What you are taught as a child sticks with you! I’m sure there are hardcore atheists who despite their intellectual certainty, can’t seem to shake that nagging fear of hell, because it was so engrained into them since childhood.

    I also think the church has cherry picked its doctrine over the centuries, and it amazes me how ‘human’ or ‘organic’ the process has been. I can’t help but wonder how Christianity would have been different, or if it would have survived at all had we had picked different writings for our canon. Or if a completely different faith might have emerged altogether, if other writings had been preserved and transmitted. It is so much like natural selection for ideas – the adaptive traits of Christianity are what enable it to survive where other ideas faded into obscurity. Have you read any Daniel Dennet? He talks a great deal about this in ‘Breaking the Spell,’ and of all the ‘New Atheist’ thinkers he seems by far the most respectful and level-headed.

    I do not want to be arrogant like I’m the only one who sees through all the BS – it has actually been incredibly humbling, no to mention scary, to think about and research these things. Fear and trembling is a great way to put it.

    • nathan,
      Thank you for sharing your doubts. I want to summarize your concerns and make sure I’ve got them right. I would then like your permission to include your comments (anonymously) in my next post where I try to answer Rosenhouse.

      What it comes down to for me, is that the premise of atheism / materialism, does a better job of predicting the reality we see around us. If we are all products of natural selection and our consciousness just comes from our brain chemistry, then it would make sense that humanity would turn out the way it has. Not only evil and suffering, which are the obvious problems, but also weird and arbitrary quirks in our anatomy that do not seem like the result of good design. We get kidney stones. Growing teeth is very painful for infants. Then they fall out when you turn six and you get your actual teeth! Until you’re 20 and your wisdom teeth start hurting. The appendix.

      First I would say, that what you seem to mean is not “predicting” but explaining. Materialism (you may also hear it referred to as physicalism) explains what we see better than an supernatural explanation. The first thing you think M (Materialism) explains is consciousness. It makes sense, for you, that consciousness can be reduced to brain chemistry. Its true that you can manipulate brain chemistry in such a way as to alter consciousness but why think that explains consciousness? Philosopher Colin McGinn in his Mysterious Flame sees consciousness as anything but reducible. And this from an agnostic! Here’s a summary from review:

      Not at all defeatist in tone, The Mysterious Flame rejects strict materialism and dualism, which seek to solve the mind-body problem in fairly unsatisfactory ways, and claims instead that our intelligence is not an appropriate tool to use for understanding the interface between subjective experience and material reality. (And, unfortunately, we don’t have anything better.) Instead of bemoaning our fate, McGinn turns the traditional questions around and asks “What can we know about ourselves?” This is just as interesting as any question being asked by philosophers of the mind, and in fact seems to merit a higher priority. Whether McGinn’s arguments will succeed in the marketplace of ideas is an open question, but they certainly deserve the attention of anyone interested in the nature of human thought. –Rob Lightner –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

      My only point is that if you delve into the mind/body problem people without any theological axe to grind seem to say that consciousness isn’t as reducible as many think. So in a way my first way of combating your doubts is to argue that M isn’t as simple as the new atheists might think. Second, I would argue that there are some aspects of the universe that a theistic worldview explains better. 1st, the big bang itself. It is completely contrary to all scientific data, that things begin without an efficient cause. Multiple universe hypotheses don’t solve this problem but merely push it back. Now I know Stephen Hawking has claimed to have solved this but in order to do so he has to rely on some dodgy and highly controversial imaginary number equations. So it may be simple but its not necessarily ironclad. You would have to swallow some controversial premises. Second, the concept of morality. NOTE: I do not mean that M cannot be consistently moral, I mean how to get moral concepts from a Materialist universe. To paraphrase Hume, if all we have sub-atomic particles in motion where is the wrong in murder? I deal with this in a blog post I argue there are basically three options left for materialists, none of which explain things very well.

      One of the most important things you said is the M is more elegant than Christianity in explaining things. I want to suggest you unpack what that means? If you mean there are fewer “plot holes” then my advice is to delve into the responses to new atheists from people like Edward Feser and Hunter Baker. However, suppose Christianity has more plot holes but they aren’t as big? Suppose M has fewer holes but the ones it has are much larger (like the Big Bang and Moral Principles). What, for you, does elegant mean? Less holes are shorter leaps?

      The main thing I would say is, keep asking and keep praying even with your doubts. I know that if the God I worship exists, your questions and your seeking is important and not insulting to Him. Don’t simply read into one side of the debate. Check out the responses from Theists. Also consider me a sounding board since I’ve been where you are.

  2. Faith is a gift and it is not given to everyone.

    Spiritual truth is not understood by the natural man. Spiritual truth is just that, spiritual. It is not natural but spiritual.

    Of course the natural man has his own ideas about how things are and his ideas are of course natural, and make sense to his natural mind.

    However, there are a couple of big problems. One is guilt. What do you do with guilt? Unless one is a sociopath, one will have a conscience and it will be troubled by sins, past and present. As one who has struggled through a human relationship in which forgiveness is being withheld from me, I know the crushing weight of never feeling forgiven. Humans may withhold forgiveness, but I am thankful that God delights in mercy. I have found that the irreligious person often has his own way of dealing with sin and it is usually quite destructive (alcoholism, drugs). Or sometimes it is a ritual of some type, which is way more legalistic than what a Christian could conceive (such as excessive cleaning or hand-washing that becomes repetitive and obsessive).

    Another big problem is that the Bible tells us that men in fact KNOW that there is a Creator God. It says that God Himself has made it obvious to us in His creation. The bible tells us that men in fact suppress the truth in unrighteousness. An unbeliever can’t find God for the same reason that a thief can’t find a policeman (hint: he doesn’t want to). To admit that there is a Creator God means: He made me and owns me and He can tell me what to do. This the natural man hates, so he suppresses the truth.

    The human body alone, not to mention the universe, is enough to convince a reasonable person that there is a Creator. We would laugh at someone who found a working computer laying around and concluded that said computer just somehow came together out of some free floating material, and began working. Yet we have a body (machine) and a brain (computer) and they work together and are dependent upon one another. We have eyes that function to see, but also to work with our brains to remember. We can recall things we have seen or experienced in our thoughts, or communicate them to others through speaking or through writing. And they can understand us. This is amazing! Another thing I find very puzzling is how could male and female of every species evolve at just the right time, just the right place with just the right interworking parts in order to reproduce? To think this could “just happen” is sheer credulity.

  3. Hi Jonathan. I just stumbled upon this after having forgotten to respond. I clearly have more reading to do, and don’t we all?!

    But for now, I can happily unpack what I mean by elegance, because I think that has become an important concept for me. ‘Elegant’ is a word that Dawkins has used to describe the principle of natural selection. It is both profound and far reaching in its ability to describe and predict various phenomena, and it is simple because it is easily summarized in one statement: “survival of the fittest.”

    There was a time when we couldn’t explain all the biological diversity we see around us, without resorting to a religious explanation. The further back in history we look, the fewer things we could explain, and the more God had to fill in the gaps for us. Psychiatric disorders and sickness were caused by demons or punishment from God. If crops fail, the gods must be mad at us. And so forth.

    Dawkins (I don’t want you to think I have just read Dawkins, but I keep mentioning him because I think he is good at stating his case very clearly) says we are still waiting for a ‘Darwin’ of physics or metaphysics. It is ok that we don’t fully understand these mysteries of consciousness, the universe before the big bang, etc, but to delegate everything we don’t know back to God by default, is not a satisfying answer because it does not encourage further study. It we were satisfied that demons make you sick and crops fail because God is mad at you, we would not have things like modern medicine, irrigation, agriculture, etc.

    I think there are other problems with Christianity as well, or at least the version of Christianity that insists Scripture is 100% inerrant and inspired by God. But they all pale in comparison to the main problem, which is a perfectly good and omnipotent being existing in the world that we know.

    That for me, and for many others, is the huge, gaping ‘plot hole’ of Christianity; the problem of evil and suffering. It is a real problem for Christians, and a very different kind of problem than these mysteries about the physical world – which scientists view as challenges and a reason to continue being scientists.

    Taking God out of the equation eliminates the problem altogether. Instead of debating why God would allow something like the Holocaust (and the horrible irony is that Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism is largely inspired by Luther, one of Christianity’s MVPs) to happen, we as human beings must take it upon ourselves to make sure it never happens again.

    My wife miscarried around the time of my last post (in May). It is a terrible thing to go through, but it is surprisingly common. I would not say that bad things that have happened in my life have led me to doubt and skepticism, but I might say my doubts have made it easier to cope with some of these things.

    I guess I am happier not knowing what happened before the Big Bang, than not knowing why God allows children to get cancer, or his chosen people to be methodically exterminated by a psychopathic dictator, or any number of the terrible things people do to each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *