Altars Against God | 25.2
Posted by Ravi Zacharias on February 23, 2017
Excerpted from Jesus Among Secular Gods by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale (Nashville: FaithWords, 2017). Used by permission of the Hachette Publishing Group.
It was years ago when I was speaking at an openly and avowedly atheistic institution that I was fascinated by a questioner who asked what on earth I meant by the term God. The city was Moscow; the setting was the Lenin Military Academy. The atmosphere was tense. Never had I been asked before to define the term in a public gathering. And because I was in a country so historically entrenched in atheism, I suspected the question was both hostile and intentional. I asked the questioner if he was an atheist, to which he replied that he was. I asked him what he was denying. That conversation didn’t go very far. So I tried to explain to him what we meant when we spoke of God.
It is fascinating to talk to a strident atheist and try to get beneath the anger or hostility. God is a trigger word for some that concentrates all his or her stored animosity into a projectile of words. But as the layers of their thinking and experience are unpacked, the meaning of atheism to each one becomes narrower and narrower, each term dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Oftentimes, the description is more visceral and is discussed with pent-up anger rather than in a sensible, respectful discussion. More than once I have been amazed at the anger expressed by members of the atheist groups at one or other of the Ivy League schools in the United States to which I have been invited to speak, anger that I was even invited and that I had the temerity to address them.
In theory, the academy has always been a place where dissent serves a valuable purpose in helping thinking students to weigh out ideas and make intelligent choices. And, dare I say, had I been a Muslim speaker, there would have been no such dissent as I faced. Evidently, being able to instill fear in people has a lot to do with how much freedom of speech you are granted. But alas! For some, at least, civil discourse is impossible. To her credit, at the end of a lecture, one senior officer in one club stood up and thanked me, a veiled apology for the resistance vented before the event. I did appreciate that courtesy.
This unfettered anger on the part of some is quite puzzling to me. I was raised in India where I was not a Hindu and, in fact, never once gave it any serious consideration. For that matter, I’m not sure if I even really believed in God. I was a nominal Christian but never gave that much thought, either. Most of my friends were either Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, with a few others of different faiths. I never recall feeling any anger or hostility toward those who believed differently than me, no matter how ludicrous their beliefs may have seemed to me. Nor do I remember ever being on the receiving end of such anger and hostility because I did not have the same belief.
But the likes of Richard Dawkins are renowned for their bullying and mocking approach toward opposing views, an attitude from an academic that makes one wonder what is really driving such an intense temperament. A questioner at a gathering in Washington, DC, once asked Richard Dawkins how one should respond to a person who believed in God. “Mock them,” he actually replied. “Ridicule them.” When someone at an event asked me what I thought of that response, I reflected that, were Dawkins to practice that same method in Saudi Arabia, chances are he would not need his return ticket. One thing is for sure—he would at least find out that not all beliefs in God are similar and not all imperatives, equal.
But his “ridicule them” posture remains unchanged. In an interview in The Independent with Maya Oppenheim (May 23, 2016), he said, “I’m all for offending people’s religion. It should be offended at every opportunity.”1 Really? Is this how one arrives at whether or not a belief is valid? He went on to add, “In the case of immigrants from Syria and Iraq, I would like to see special preference given to apostates, people who have given up Islam.”2 If Donald Trump had said the same, there would have been a session in the British Houses of Parliament to decide whether or not he should be allowed into the country anymore. But Dawkins says it and it’s acceptable, because atheists who love him and his style of atheism have their own absolutes and their own legitimized prejudices.
Intolerance, prejudice, disrespect, hatred, and offense are all within the fruit of Dawkins’ philosophy. In creedal form, his philosophy is hate, discriminate, judge, mock, castigate, eliminate, stop…do whatever you need to do to put an end to belief in God. Ironically, he condemns God for being prejudiced, hate-filled, egotistical, judgmental, and demeaning to those who don’t agree with Him. He derides the attributes of God by making a caricature of Him, but justifies the same attributes in himself without caricature. I would rather trust the judgments of a good and gracious person than one who spends his time and energy in mocking people and their sacred beliefs. And he is not alone. The hallmark of the so-called “new atheists” is the anger and ridicule that is hurled toward anyone’s belief in the sacred.
Need I add, not all atheists have the same disposition. In fact, many find the hostility of the new atheists an embarrassment. I have met many a cordial conversationalist who is atheistic in his or her belief, and we’ve had the best of conversations. Many have remarked that they have been able to take only so much of Dawkins and his followers and then stopped even reading them. Whatever worldview we espouse, dialogue and debate should take place with civility and courteous listening. But our times make that ideal so elusive. Holding a supposedly noble belief and reducing it to ignoble means of propagation makes the one who holds that belief suspect.
To be sure, many in the so-called “religious” category have provoked strident responses. The pulpit can sadly be a place of bullying people into guilt and remorse and other emotions that make them want to escape from the voice hammering away at them, to say nothing of the anti-intellectualism among Christian ranks that brands even a hint of philosophy or science heretical.
History has taught us to beware of extremists in any camp that sacrifice cordial conversation at the altar of demagogic enforcement. Views and opinions are aplenty in our world of tweeting and Instagram, but civil discourse is rare. And rarer still is the ability to defend one’s beliefs with reason and experience. I sincerely hope that as my colleague Vince and I examine the differences among secular belief systems (that are, in fact, also religions), we will be able to effectively demonstrate where these differences really lie, and that the Judeo-Christian worldview has the most coherent answers to the inescapable questions of life that we all have, regardless of our beliefs.
Questioning the Question
The story is told of an Indian sitting in a plane next to Albert Einstein. To pass the time, Einstein proposed that they play a game. “I will ask you a question, and if you can’t answer it, you pay me fifty dollars. Then you ask me a question, and if I can’t answer it, I will pay you five hundred dollars.” The Indian knew he was no match for Einstein but figured he had enough philosophical and cultural knowledge to be able to stump Einstein sometimes, and with a ratio of ten to one, he could manage to stay in the game.
Einstein went first and asked the Indian how far the earth was from the moon. The Indian was not sure of the exact number and put his hand into his pocket to give Einstein fifty dollars. Now came the Indian’s turn, and he asked, “What goes up the mountain with three legs and comes down with four legs?” Einstein paused, pondered, finally dipped his hand into his pocket and gave the man five hundred dollars. Now it was Einstein’s turn again. He said, “Before I ask you my next question, what does go up the mountain with three legs and comes down with four legs?” The Indian paused, dipped into his pocket, and gave Einstein fifty dollars.
Like that Indian, we often ask questions that are manufactured to trip up the other person, while having no answers to the question ourselves. In his book The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom, Robert Morey points out the seven leaps atheists have to explain: How…
Everything ultimately came from Nothing
Order came from Chaos
Harmony came from Discord
Life came from Nonlife
Reason came from Irrationality
Personality came from Non-personality
Morality came from Amorality3
But more than that needs to be asserted. The questions in life are not just in the sciences. They are not just of mathematical or empirical measurement. Two people sitting next to each other in a plane may both be going to the same destination. They may know how many hours the journey takes and how many miles they may cover. One may be going to give a talk on science and the other may be going to bury his grandson. But think about this. The scientist may have his subject well in hand, but still have unanswered questions on the meaning of life, while the person next to him may have unanswered questions on the value of the constants in the early formation of the universe, yet have the knowledge of what life really means. He may have in his heart the deep conviction that this present sorrow is only a punctuation mark because eternity awaits. One discipline may answer “how” in a material explanation, but the most important question answers the “why.” Why is it that we are here in the first place, and who will see us through the anxieties and pains of life itself? These questions are different yet equally relevant, but for different reasons. Life requires some understanding, and the struggles we face need explanatory power. It is when we get the two subjects and their reasons for existence mixed up that we end up with verbal attacks and needless hostility.
Many an atheist asks questions for which he or she admittedly has no answers or believes the answers to be “on hold,” but we are expected to give credence to the whole worldview for merely raising the question. I understand. As a young man I was like that, thinking that putting another person down automatically justified what I had said in response to his position. This book is about examining the “gods” secular thinkers “worship” and how repeatedly they leave their own questions unanswered.
The points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic. Indeed, they are foundational. I have dealt with the philosophical debate on these matters in other writings. Here, I wish to examine their answers to questions about life and its meaning in distinction to the answers Jesus gives to the same questions. That’s where our philosophical rubber meets the road of life. But hopefully, more than that, we will state why the answers of Jesus have stood the test of time, truth, and coherence.
Remember the insight of G. K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy that, for the atheist, sorrow is central and joy peripheral, while for the follower of Jesus, joy is central and sorrow peripheral. The reason that statement is true is that for the atheist, the foundational questions remain unanswered while they have answers for the peripheral questions; hence, sorrow is central and joy peripheral. For the Christian, it is reversed: The foundational questions have been answered and only the peripheral ones remain in doubt.4 Hopefully, as the content of this book unfolds, Vince and I can sustain that claim.
Life Seeks a Balance
My favorite essayist, F. W. Boreham, has written an essay entitled, “A Baby’s Funeral.” Anyone who has read Boreham knows the beauty of his language and the depth of his writing. He has authored over fifty volumes of essays. In this particular essay, which I have references in two of my previous books but in this new context perfectly illustrates how all of life must be grounded in truth, Boreham begins by describing the scene of a distraught woman he saw one day walking back and forth outside his home, pausing as though wanting to enter his garden and then backing off.
Finally, Boreham stepped out of his home and wished her a good morning. She asked if he was the pastor of the church nearby and he admitted that he was. She entered the house at his invitation and struggled to pour out her story. She had had a baby, born terribly deformed, who had died shortly after birth. She desired for the baby to have a proper burial and wondered if he would do that for her.
Boreham promptly responded that he would. He took out a pad to get the information. Did the child have a name? Who was the father? So went the questions. She answered them and the date for the funeral was set. The woman left and Boreham and his wife continued with their plans for a picnic that morning. Throughout the day the woman was on his mind and he told his wife that there was something that didn’t quite sound right about her narrative. He did not know what it was but hoped he would have more clarity before the day of the burial.
When they returned home, the woman was standing outside their home and asked if she could come in. She sat down, rubbing her hands nervously, and said, “I have not been honest with you. The baby was born illegitimately, and I have given you a made-up name for the father.” The story unfolded and Boreham comforted her as best as he could.
The day of the burial came. It was pouring rain, and to add to the desolate reality, the cemetery was a new one and this was to be the first body interred. Boreham remarks on the total feeling of aloneness for this poor woman. An illegitimate, deformed baby. Pouring rain as the three stood under their umbrellas, the grave digger standing by ready to lower the casket into the soggy ground. A tiny body about to be buried in a place where no other had ever been laid to rest. No one else, just the minister and his wife and the bereaved mother present for this tragedy, and they too were strangers.
Boreham suddenly switches the scene and begins to write about being on a train journey years later with a superintendent in his denomination. It was a whistle-stop trip where, at every station the superintendent would step out, meet with a group of his ministers, listen to them, pray for them, and then would leave these parting words with them, “Just be there for your people. Be with them in their needs, in their hurts, in their pains. They will never forget your presence and your kindness.”
Boreham continues that as he listened to this advice being given to the younger pastors, his mind flew back over the years to the day a young woman walked distractedly back and forth in front of his home, a woman whose child he had buried in a lonely cemetery. He realized that through the years, rain or shine, every Sunday since then that same woman had been in his church and lived a life in a quiet relationship with her Savior.
This very type of story was reinforced just two days ago. I had just finished speaking to a full church in Jakarta, Indonesia, and there was a silence as the music played softly for the closing moments. I was near the platform, having stepped away from the lectern, and my eyes caught sight of a young mother with two little children. Her arms were gently bent at the elbows, palms open, reaching outward while the two little ones, one on each side of her, held on to her skirt. As soon as the benediction was over, the two of them ran up the stairs to give me a hug, though I had never met them before. And as they left, my interpreter said to me, “Almost exactly to the day, a year ago their father was murdered. The little boy looks just like his dad.”
What a statement that suddenly changed the context and my emotions from witnessing a young family at worship, absent the father, to realizing a young single mother reaching out to her heavenly father and raising her two children without bitterness or anger. I spoke to her afterward and my heart still recalls her words. “Yes, I’m alone now, but my God is with me.”
You see, there is an intellectual side to life but also a side to life where deep needs are experienced. We falsely think that one side deals with truth and the other with fantasy. Both need the truth, and the elimination of one by the other is not the world in which God intends for us to live. A mockery of the sacred reveals an animosity that staggers not just the mind but shows the character flaw in one such as that. The words of Blake are appropriate here:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on, ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.5
It is my hope that the reader will stay the course with an open mind to judge fairly how unique and splendid is the message of Jesus Christ, reaching to the deepest hungers and questions of the heart and mind. To be truthful, I wouldn’t waste a solitary moment in this task if I didn’t truly believe that as the world is skidding out of control—politically, socially, economically, and racially—Jesus’ answers are unique and true and provide the only coherent worldview, combining truth with relevance to bring hope and meaning.
Every day, the news carries stories of tragedy and atrocity. News is thrust into our consciousness whether we want the information or not. Behind many an act and behind all responses is a worldview that filters reality. The follower of Jesus sees what is happening through the lens of how Jesus describes the human condition and the answer He gives. The contrast with the secular gods of this age is huge. A fair-minded person must at least give a hearing as to why that is so and, if indeed the answers of Jesus open up vistas for one’s own individual life, see the world through a different set of eyes. With that goal in mind, I enter into this journey of thought.
Your Worldview Matters
The Great Books of the Western World, published in the 1950s, gave the longest space to the theme of “God,” addressed by the most notable Western thinkers of the day. When Mortimer Adler, the editor, was asked why that theme occupied such length when many other notable themes were given less space, he answered without hesitation, “Because more consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.”6
The questioner was silent and nodded.
Yes, indeed, more consequences, on every matter of value and relationship, follow from one’s genuine belief or disbelief in God than from any other issue. This alone ought to remind us just how critical is the foundation to every life when it comes to God. The follower of Jesus Christ must take serious note of this. That belief has meaning and must make a difference.
I will never forget talking to a former Muslim who had committed his life to Jesus Christ and who gave me a fascinating word picture. He drew two circles and put a small dot in each of them. Pointing to the first, he said, “As a Muslim, I believed the circle to be my faith and the little dot to be my life.” Then he pointed to the next circle and said, “Now, as a follower of Jesus, I have seen the difference in the cultural tension. To many Westerners, the circle is his life and the dot is his faith.”
In other words, a Muslim believed that life was expendable, his faith paramount. The Westerner, he charged, regards his life more important than what he believes. “That is why,” he added, “the West will ultimately be overrun. Faith, in the West, is sort of an extracurricular interest and a mere aspect of life for the sake of inner peace. But faith seldom enters the conscience as a conviction.”
That was truly a sobering revelation of just how faith is viewed by most in the West, let alone the plurality of faiths that exist. In fact, the very word faith is now used in less than flattering terms. The real world is considered intellectually rigorous, and the world of ultimate reality—faith—fanciful, not to be entertained in factual terms. How fascinating that is. So the values by which we live are parked on the shifting mix of quicksand the skeptic calls “faith,” while the world of pragmatic and real understandings is supposedly built on the bedrock of the sciences called “reason.”
Is my friend right?
If he is right, I will go so far as to say that the West is on the verge of collapse at the hands of its own secular intellectuals. It is only a matter of time. The Christian faith brings with it convictions by which to stand and build a moral framework. The secular thinker, with his implicitly amoral assumptions, imagines that knowledge without a moral base has enough sustaining power. It simply doesn’t.
Watch Europe cower under the heel of Islamists who have not forgotten that they were stopped from overtaking Europe and beaten back by Charles Martel thirteen centuries ago. Now, with patience and the clever control of demographics and a gullible media, they stand by, ready to one day take over the structures and edifices built by a different ethic and a different belief system. It is only a matter of time, and they are in no hurry. Thirteen centuries ago, Europe was able to stop the theocratic Islamic tidal wave because it had a faith to defend. The value-less culture of today will not be able to withstand the attack.
Years ago, while Hitler was making plans to overrun the world and some were attempting to placate him in order to save themselves from having to make a moral justification for war, Winston Churchill made a telling speech in the House of Commons on October 5, 1938. (“The Munich Agreement” is also known by the title “A Total and ‘Unmitigated Defeat,’” referring to the mollifying treaty brought back by Neville Chamberlain.) Quoting from Scripture, Churchill declared, “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27). Then he ended his speech saying, “And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”7
After Hitler visited Paris in 1940, André Boulloche, a courageous member of the French Resistance, penned a letter to his father, saying: “The country can only be saved by a complete moral resurrection, something that will require the work of all men of good will.… I think I can contribute a great deal. And if more troubles lie ahead, isn’t my duty present?”8
Indeed, the preservation of a nation’s ethos is at stake at all times. This is especially true of a nation such as America whose values of trying to balance liberty with law were clear from the beginning. That balance is easier stated than done. John Adams said it well: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”9
So I ask: Should one’s belief in God and destiny be more important than life itself?
The answer truly depends on what that belief is and whether it is true. The irony is that for the atheist, the answer can only and ultimately be found in one’s political theory or, by default, in one’s cultural cradle, and cannot be mandated by a supervening worldview that pursues truth as an objective fact over and above all else. Every other discipline is dismissed as being outside truth, reflecting merely cultural and career desires. That’s all life is about. The naturalists control truth and then give license to other disciplines to live without absolutes. That is the deadly fallout.
In a commercial I saw recently, a couple of bandits are holding the tellers at a bank at gunpoint and demanding money. All the customers are ordered to the floor. One man whispers to a security guard, “Do something, you’re armed!” The security guard replies, “I am on duty not to do anything but only to determine if a robbery is underway.” Then he pauses and reassures the customer, “Yes, indeed, this is a robbery.”
The naturalist is somewhat like that. Unable to respond to where the truth leads, he is useless to a person hungering for rescue and safety for life itself. He just states what is and does nothing about what should be.
Why do I make the connection between a nation, a people, and a culture? In the current climate, the political arena is fraught with language and views that are scary and disorienting. In one instance, a trail of lies makes no difference to the electorate, proving that the most valuable thing in human discourse, truth, is an expendable value if power is obtained. In another instance, even extreme and sometimes pejorative statements on people and views don’t seem to matter, and the dignity of office is replaced, once again, by the quest for power.
Candidates coming to the fore propound ideas that are creating anger and protests that make the future very fearsome. For one, “dishonest” sums it up. For the other, “disrespectful” or worse, “prejudice” is the charge. Whether these are legitimate assertions or not is secondary to the assumption that morality matters.
Ironically, the protestors protesting the candidates themselves resort to injurious means. But what is obvious is that statecraft has become soulcraft, and a nation that formally wishes to deny God finds its imperatives in a deadly mix of conflicting worldviews and hate-laden words on a path to power. What has happened? The answer is clear. The discussion in the public square is now reduced to right or left, forgetting there is an up and down.
These matters alone remind us that we had better understand this philosophy called atheism and why it leads where it does. Strange, isn’t it, that atheists in the West want the term marriage redefined while their counterparts in Russia and China will have nothing of that redefinition? Both have their own reasons, and there is no common point of reference. That’s precisely the edifice built on the bedrock of naturalism. Each person is a law unto himself.
Remember in the Old Testament when people wanted a king and God said that He wanted to be their ruler? The people fought back and said they wanted to be like every other nation and, in fact, have somebody else to fight their wars while they could go about their lives. They got what they wanted and found out that the greatest battles were ultimately for the rule of one’s heart. Once that becomes autonomous, culture and politics become lawless. And when those battles are lost, the war that looms is of huge proportions. This is, at best, the unintended consequence of atheism.
As Old as the Hills
We think atheism is some kind of newfangled thinking, that science and its bequest gave way to autonomy and our solitude in the universe. That is simply not so. The formalization of it and giving it intellectual respect may have taken time, but the question goes back to the beginning of time. Right from the start the question was not the origin of species but the autonomy of the species. We are more prone to quote from the Wilberforce/Huxley debate or the Galileo/Church conflict than to look back and see where such real tensions began.
We think Darwin buried God, but in fact, in Genesis 3, the very first in the created order wished to bury Him too. All the way to Calvary, the first attempt at death was the death of God. The killing of God was followed by the killing by Cain of his brother, Abel. The Bible addresses this conflict from the pre-Mosaic era. After all, the battle in Genesis was really based on two questions. The battle between theism and atheism is the oldest philosophical debate. It didn’t take the French philosophes or the British empiricists to get it all going.
What are the two questions that existed for humanity from the beginning of creation? The first salvo hurled against God in the Garden was “Did God really say?” In the gospel story, the temptation of Jesus resurrects the same question, either by questioning a text or by wrenching it free from its context. The test brought to Jesus in the desert, the same test brought in the Garden, was “Has God said?” and “Is it true?” Those questions implicitly asked whether there was an up and a down. Is there a prescriptive backdrop to life? Can I not be my own definer of good and evil? Am I subject to some higher non-tangible authority?
In his article on “Religion,” Thomas Paine picks up this tension as if it is something new and makes some incredible statements questioning whether one should actually believe that God reveals and speaks. Here’s what he says:
As to the bible (sic.), whether true or fabulous, it is a history, and history is not revelation. If Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and if Samson slept in Delilah’s lap, and she cut his hair off, the relation of those things is mere history, that needed no revelation from heaven to tell it; neither does it need any revelation to tell us that Samson was a fool for his pains, and Solomon too.
As to the expressions so often used in the bible, that the word of the Lord came to such an one (sic.)…it was the fashion of speaking in those times…. But if we admit the supposition that God would condescend to reveal himself in words, we ought not to believe it would be in such idle and profligate stories as are in the bible.… Deists deny that the book called the bible is the word of God, or that it is revealed religion.10
That is a fascinating mix of prejudice and perversion. One feels he must ask if Paine was present in the Garden right from the beginning. He takes the stories of Solomon and Samson and puts them in a “history” category. Would he do the same with the crucifixion and the resurrection or does a different kind of narrative now take place?
The key here is that he simply does not believe God would reveal Himself in propositional truth. Paine didn’t invent that predicament. It existed from the beginning. Revelation was not in a vacuum of belief. Revelation was sustained by evidence and propelled by a reality check, time and again. The very means by which we ascertain truth is not merely an inner voice but the rationale of why we are here in the first place.
The question should really be why we even think of a supreme being. Why do we ask if there is a sovereign power over the universe?
Is it because we are deluded into thinking there should be, or is it because reason demands a cause and a purpose? Is it possible that deep within our hungers is this quest to know why we are here in the first place, and the naturalist’s cavalier dismissal of that question falls upon questing souls that search for a reason as much as the body yearns for water?
There were no professors of science in the original created order to question revelation. From deep within the human soul arose the challenge for autonomy over against a boundary within which to live. So let’s get over two blunders—the one that thinks this is modern man in revolt, and the other that thinks intellectuals disbelieve in God and only the naïve or stupid continue to believe in God. I have met intellectuals on both sides of the issue, and it is not merely an intellectual struggle. It is a struggle of bridge building, of trying to tie theoretical structures to heartfelt and heart-hungering realities.
As Real as Now
The second question that originated in Genesis came in the form of a challenge: “You will not surely die! You will be as God, defining good and evil.” For Darwin, as for our polite modern thinkers, hell is anathema. Why would any self-respecting human being think up hell? Interestingly, these who challenge the existence of God are the very ones who are willing to punish others for their beliefs. “Destroy the livelihood of those who believe in the sanctity of marriage!” “Don’t give them a place in academia if they really believe God exists!” Such is the retribution of self-worship, imposed by those who call God vengeful, a “joy-killing monster,” and “a freedom-restricting tyrant,” if you don’t give Him His due place. Fascinating how we wield power when we own it and then mock others with power for giving in to the same expression.
The enemy of our souls basically counters the claims of God, not merely by questioning them, but then by asserting that by disobeying God’s commands one will actually be promoted to taking God’s place. Once again at the heart of all temptation is the desire for autonomy and power. The human scene was steeped in the battle for autonomy and power right from the beginning. Did God speak? Is it true what He says about good and evil? Are we going to believe the truth, or are we comfortable with the lie because of the power it promises to give us?
It seems as though the ultimate destination point, then and now, is the power to control culture and destiny. Very recently, a Russian business tycoon gave Stephen Hawking one hundred million dollars toward his endeavor to find extraterrestrial intelligence. Hawking has opined that it is critical for us to find them before they find us, saying that if we don’t find them before they find us, they could wipe us out of existence. After the slaughters in San Bernardino, Belgium, Paris, the Boston Marathon, Turkey, Baghdad, Orlando, Dallas, and the list goes on endlessly, we want to get to other planets without fixing our own and destroy them also?
I found his comment fascinating. My first reaction was cynical. Yes, I thought, since we don’t see much intelligence on this planet any more, let’s go looking for it elsewhere. Then another thought kicked in. It is fascinating that the “world’s brightest mind” thinks an intelligence possibly exists out there that could destroy us, but no intelligence exists as Creator.
Then yet another thought. Professor Hawking himself, had he been left at the mercy of a pragmatic “life is not human in the womb,” or not worth saving by virtue of a degenerative disease, would have been destroyed and we would never have seen the likes of his genius. It would have been our loss. You see how intrinsic value decisions are in the choices we make? The scientific single vision does not give us values; it gives us only what is and cannot give us what ought. Is it any wonder that in this scenario where science is our single vision, existence is the circle and what we believe—our values—are merely a dot, as described by my friend?
Another personal note, from having lived in Cambridge in the early nineties: Hawking’s first wife, Jane, was and is a devout Christian, an intellectual in her own right. Hawking himself has paid her the finest compliments. Living side-by-side with one of the brightest minds in the world did not take away her deep belief in Jesus Christ and in the created order. That alone should tell us that what is at issue is not as simplistic as an intellectually determined faith. Much more goes into this.
So then, right from the beginning, in the face of choices, two questions determined the future: 1) Did God say? 2) Do you really think you’re going to die or can you become like God, determining good and evil?
The Theoretical Backdrop
What does it mean to be an atheist? What does the “ism” of the atheist hold? Is it monolithic? Are all atheistic systems the same in political theory? How did that philosophy become a formal system, and how does one respond to its claims?
Let’s go back to the philosophical and categorical roots of this so-called belief, to its philosophical and cultural viewpoint. The very Greek word from which we get atheism is really a simple conjoining of the negative with the divine. The alpha is the negative and theos is the word for God. At its starting point, from the very structure of the word itself, the philosophy of atheism means no personal, self-existent, autonomous, intelligent first cause of reality.
Ironically, in particular cultural milieus the word gets watered down so that in the days of the early Church, Christians were called atheists because they denied the existence of the gods of Greece and Rome. By the seventh century, Muslims branded Christians polytheists because of their cardinal doctrine of the Trinity. One can readily see how important it is to understand, from the orthodox point of view, what the beliefs really are rather than attributing cultural nuances to a system.
In two of my previous works, I have quoted the standard texts and definitions that provide the starting point for this discussion. I would like to refer back to that before I move forward and bring the positions up to date. Frankly, in a subject such as this, there really is ultimately nothing new under the sun. People such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Krauss, and others who promote the aggressive side of this belief muster not a single new argument to defend their position. That is why even other prominent atheists or agnostics consider them an embarrassment and say so. In fact, Dawkins’ remark on Harris’s explanation in The Moral Maze—that he provided the last strand against theism—is embarrassing to other atheists, to say the least. I doubt he truly believed that.
The well-respected Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Paul Edwards defines atheism as follows: “An atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence ‘God exists’ expresses a false proposition…a person who rejects belief in God.”11 In his book on atheism, Étienne Borne says, “Atheism: the deliberate, definite, dogmatic denial of the existence of God.”12 So while the bottom line of the view is a denial of God’s existence, in fairness it is really within the spectrum of agnosticism that ranges from a soft-boiled agnosticism where one claims not to know whether God exists to a hard-boiled agnosticism that postulates that one simply cannot know. The next stage is a rigorous denial of the existence of this Being we call God. That is the hard-nosed idea that God is not in the realm of meaningful statements, and that if He/She/It does indeed exist, it is up to the theist to prove it.
Now this latter assumption is terribly prejudiced by culture and, one might dare say, flies in the face of how philosopher Alvin Plantinga, a longtime member of the faculty at Notre Dame, would describe belief in God—a “Properly Basic Belief” so common and so self-evident to the masses of humanity that, to them, no defense is needed. Of course, other philosophers take issue with that and say that in any debate this description would not stand the test of argument. Plantinga contends that the masses of people are not in the arena of debate; they intuitively believe that there is a power greater than themselves, and they seek ways in which to connect with that supreme being. Raised in India, I have seen this firsthand. Though it was not my personal belief, it was indisputably intrinsic to the mainstream of life, both for the unsophisticated and the highly educated.
It is important to recognize that the Greeks, who really are the forerunners in systematic philosophical thought in classical philosophy (and as an extension of that came democratic government), attempted to define ultimate reality in abstract terms. Their musings and ponderings on ultimate reality cause some to even argue that Plato was probably moving toward a high monotheism. Whether one accepts that or not, what is important is that in their view, ultimate reality was inseparable from virtue and ethical norms.
For many in Greek thought, the power of reason was supreme, and the freeing of philosophy and science from the mystical was a deliberate and purposeful discipline. But, I repeat, for the Greek thinkers, though they did not posit a God, one thing was certain—virtue and harmony were the emergent implications for life.
There is a striking similarity between our so-called doctrine of tolerance and the early Greeks. For example, the oration at the funeral of Pericles gives fascinating insight into the hub and spokes of their reflections on life and destiny. We owe to Thucydides the reconstruction of that eulogy. Here it is:
[J]ust as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way…. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law….
When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits…in our own homes we find a beauty and good taste which delight us every day and which drives away our cares….
Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft…. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: The real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.
We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them. This makes our friendships all the more reliable…. [E]ach single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and to do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.13
Tolerance the New Virtue
Actually, that philosophizing would fit into Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and the new tolerance of Western Secularism. That is the new god of this age. One look at this and you can see how a political framework addresses the soul of a people when God is not known or sought. We can readily see how critical it is that values be upheld for the public good. In reality, this is possibly the basis of a noble humanistic credo, but we shall deal with that later.
For now, we see how the early Greek philosophers and early nontheistic spirituality or mystery religions believed in a structure of virtue for one’s individual life and destiny. There were, however, very important differences in terms of why they thought this way and what they believed the purpose of life to be. That, to me, is key. As I have travelled for some four decades and have literally met with thousands of individuals, either one-on-one or in small groups after the public forums, there are really a handful of questions that emerge.
The first question is of life’s purpose and meaning: What does life and living really mean? Then there comes the question of pleasure and enjoyment: How do I fulfill my desires? The pursuit of pleasure is at the core of our existence. We work, we earn a living, we return to our homes, but then we make decisions for our enjoyment: Are there any boundaries for pleasure? Then there is the third question: What does one make of all the suffering and pain we see in this world?
There you have it. Meaning, pleasure, pain. And all of these hang on the hinge of the fourth major question, a very defining one: How and why am I here in the first place? This was the very bedrock of questioning that Solomon pursued. He was not raised a Greek. He was raised in David’s family, a Jewish family with a definite belief in a personal God. There had to be a father-son disjunction here for Solomon to live as a hedonist but be regarded as a moralist, renowned for his wisdom.
That defining question is answered confidently by the atheist that we are here by accident. Turn back the clock and try the same thing again and it will never happen once more. Our presence is a cosmic accident for which there is no script for life or preassigned purpose. But let us be absolutely clear: The atheist has placed all other definitions of life’s imperatives on this one hinge, that we exist on this earth and struggle with human personality, morality, and reality without a personal, moral, or real first cause. That’s the leap of faith—to believe that ultimately life is matter and that it therefore doesn’t really matter. If you submit to the first conclusion, you are inextricably bound to the rest that follow.
Take for example Stephen Jay Gould:
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available (so thank your lucky stars in a literal sense); because the earth never literally froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa, a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a higher answer—but none exists. This answer though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves—from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.14
Gould states unequivocally that meaning is not decipherable by us. No higher answer exists, he says, and we have to find the answers on our own terms. This incredibly answerless answer is what sends Western values on the slippery slope of nihilism. But there is more. If meaning is not within the purpose of our existence, the second struggle is whether to seek a boundary for pleasure or eliminate all boundaries.
The difference between a nontheistic religion and an atheistic worldview is literally worlds apart. The difference comes from the explanation for theistic thinking. Both the realities of pleasure and of pain demand answers and explanation, whether life has meaning and whether there is a solution to the problem of pain. To arrive at a formal and creedal denial of a supreme being opens the door to all kinds of debates and arguments on the entailments of such a hopeless foundation.
From that starting point the remaining three answers are literally up for grabs, so let’s see how the religious nontheist and the secular atheist deal with the entailments of their starting points. When you start off with “no god,” you end up with the strangest of mental manipulations to keep you from the logical arc of reasoning. And the first mistake for the atheist is to position science into doing what it was never supposed to do.
Scientists themselves question their fellow authorities in this field. The agnostic physicist David Berlinski has written a trenchant critique of Dawkins in his book The Devil’s Delusion, a challenge to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. On the inside flap of the book, introducing his subject, he writes,
Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence?
Not even close.
Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe and why it is here?
Not even close.
Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life?
Not even close.
Are physicists and biologists willing to believe anything so long as it is not religious thought?
Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral?
Not close enough.
Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good?
Not even close to being close.
Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences?
Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational?
Not even ballpark.
Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt?
One has to commend Berlinski and others like him for calling the bluff of those hiding behind science and making sweeping assertions against belief in God. In fact, there is so much contradiction even within the exact sciences that anyone who speaks for all obviously does not respect the different disciplines within science. I know scholarly thinkers in the field of chemistry who have issued challenges to others, asking them to show evidence from chemistry that the move from primordial slime to Homo sapiens is even theoretically possible. Professor James Tour of Rice University is one such scholar. In fact, cosmologist John Barrow said to Dawkins, “You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you’re not really a scientist. You’re a biologist.”16
Interesting, isn’t it, how the methodology and implications vary between the disciplines? It was this very challenge that caused Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle to postulate that an earthbound theory explaining origins is mathematically impossible. But that is the foundation on which all the debunking of religious belief takes place. My colleague in this book will be dealing more extensively with the hazards of a scientific single vision. For my purposes here, let us agree that the extension of the discipline takes it outside its range.
That, then, brings the implications of the existential struggle into the no-man’s-land of meaninglessness.
A Rootless Culture
In Western cultural speak, we have basically gone from being a rootless society to a ruthless society. In America, we say that we are a nation of laws. That sounds fascinating. Are we implying that other nations are nations without laws? No culture on earth has more laws than the Islamic world. Their laws extend to what you eat and when you eat, how you marry and whom you marry, how you bank and with whom you bank, when you fast and how much you give, which way you face when you pray and how many times…laws ad nauseam. They pride themselves on it.
So we are a nation of laws. Let’s move further. To use a metaphor, law forms the roots from which our culture is built. The trunk then becomes the political system; the branches and the leaves or the fruit of the tree become the expression of the culture. That’s the figurative description of how we build a culture. When you think about it, it is actually circular. We act as if law just came into being and is self-evident. The question should really be, what holds the law in place?
The laws that legitimized slavery were railed against by a moral intuition that this exploitation and dominance of a people was morally wrong. Ironically, in their songs both the slave and the slave owner called upon God to rescue them or validate them. They weren’t calling upon nature to do so. Even in the context of the dominance of the Indian people by the British, Bertrand Russell, of all people, said that it was doubtful the plea from reason would have succeeded against the British except that it appealed to the conscience of a Christianized people.
This is where worldviews come into play. What holds the laws of a nation? It is the moral soil that must hold the roots. As G. K. Chesterton put it, lawful and legal do not mean the same thing and the moral soil is indispensable to aesthetic flourishing:
We are always near the breaking point, when we care only for what is legal, and nothing for what is lawful. Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules. There will be so many hard cases that everything will go soft.17
Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art, any more than anything essentially reasonable has ever arisen out of pure reason. There must always be a rich moral soil for any great aesthetic growth.18
Recently I saw a movie titled Irrational Man. The well-known actor Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of an esteemed and attention-drawing professor of philosophy. Before he arrives at the school at which he will be teaching, he already has a reputation as a bit of a loner and an eccentric. As the story line builds, we become aware that his goal is to influence his students toward the ethical system he subscribes to, built on the existentialists.
One day he overhears the story of a woman who was wrongly victimized by a judge’s ruling and becomes irate over that injustice. He ponders how to set this right and decides to kill the judge. That accomplished, one of his students discovers that he is the killer and, aghast, gradually pins him down with the truth. He has one option left, to kill her as well, even though he was romantically involved with her. In the end, in a struggle near an open elevator shaft, she gets the better of him and instead of her, as he had intended, he is crushed under the weight of the elevator.
It is interesting that though reason was his discipline, he was crushed by the weight of the immoral reasoning he had justified in his own heart as the right thing to do…until he was found out and had to explain it.
Law, philosophy, love, education, justice…all are built not on reason alone but on moral reasoning. This is the discipline under which atheism fails, and the ideas of atheism will be crushed under the very system constructed to make the one who points the guilty finger ineffectual.
The hunger of the human heart is for meaning, reason, purpose, and value, and atheism simply does not have either the answers or the explanatory power to make it possible to build a life on the foundation it offers. That is why some of the best of them discover at life’s termination point that their philosophy was reasoned into irrationality and their temporary victory, pyrrhic—it cost the victor more than it cost the vanquished.
To wit, Antony Flew and A. N. Wilson, two prominent thinkers who climbed the tree of atheism to great renown, only to concede that its trunk is hollow and its branches, deadly. The unanswered questions made Flew question the philosophy. An Easter Sunday walk to church with his family where he observed the followers of Jesus and heard the truth claims of their resurrected Lord made the difference for Wilson, the difference between life and death, substance and hollowness, purpose and meaninglessness, love and hate, living a lie or living by the truth.
The chapters to come show the difference between Jesus and secular “isms” in the why of life itself. Our first comparison will be a deeper exploration of atheism—the general “ism” underlying all other secular worldviews. Then we proceed chapter by chapter to confront the secular gods that guide our neighbors and our nation. So far we have glimpsed only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s see where the differences really take us.
Ravi Zacharias is Founder and President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
1 Maya Oppenheim, “Richard Dawkins: Atheist academic calls for religion ‘to be offended at every opportunity,’” The Independent (23 May 2016), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/richard-dawkins-atheist-academic-calls-for-religion-to-be-offended-at-every-opportunity-a7043226.html. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
3 Robert A. Morey, The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986), 98.
4 G. K. Chesterton observes, “It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy…. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity.” G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 236–237, 105. Also available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16769/16769-h/16769-h.htm. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
5 William Blake, “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Third Edition, general editor M. H. Abrams (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 1338.
6 Mortimer Adler, The Synopticon: An Index to the Great Ideas, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Britannica, 1952), 543.
7 Winston Churchill, “The Munich Agreement,” http://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1930-1938-the-wilderness/101-the-munich-agreement. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
8 Charles Kaiser, The Cost of Courage (New York: Other Press, 2015), 51.
9 “Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 11 October 1798,” in Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of General William Hull (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1848), 266.
10 Thomas Paine, The Theological Works of Thomas Paine (London: R. Carlile, 1824), 317.
11 Paul Edwards, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 175.
12 Étienne Borne, Atheism (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1961), 61.
13 Thucydides, “The Funeral Oration of Pericles,” History of the Peloponnesian War, M. I. Finley, editor, translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Classics, 1972), excerpt online at http://teacher.sduhsd.net/tpsocialsciences/world_history/dem_ideals/pericles.htm. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
14 Stephen Jay Gould, quoted by David Friend and the editors of Life magazine, The Meaning of Life (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991), 33.
15 Citation from book jacket, http://www.davidberlinski.org/devils-delusion/about.php. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
16 John Barrow quoted in Julia Vitullo-Martin’s “A Scientist’s Scientist,” http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/barrow-to-dawkins-youre-not-really-a-scientist/. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.
17 G. K. Chesterton, As I Was Saying, ed. Robert Knille (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984), 267.
18 G. K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Nonsense” in A Defence of Nonsense and Other Essays (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1911), 8.