A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
How science points to the existence of God
The astronomer Carl Sagan famously stated, “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” It’s a succinct description of the atheistic creed. It means that nature is everything, and there is nothing supernatural at all. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins cites Julian Baggini from the book Atheism: a very short introduction, “What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values - in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.”
Dawkins continues by drawing other conclusions from this atheistic belief: “Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles - except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.” (Italics his)
Notice, in passing, that atheism, like religions, has basic beliefs that cannot be proved (there is nothing beyond the observable universe), and from those beliefs it draws conclusions (no supernatural intelligence, no soul, no miracles, human consciousness arises from biological complexity). Thus, like religion, atheism is a belief system with doctrines and dogmas drawn from those beliefs.
The different beliefs of atheism and Christianity about human origins lead to very different conclusions about mankind and our place and purpose in the universe. Atheism concludes that because mankind arose purely by chance mutations and natural selection, our species isn’t the product of a divine plan. There’s no purpose for our existence. Human history has no end point to which it’s being guided. Mankind is just another species of animal - highly intelligent and self-aware, but an animal nevertheless.
Oscar Wilde wrote in an essay, De Profundis, “The final mystery is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?” In this article I want to look into the mystery of human nature. Human nature is something we all have first-hand experience of. I want to ask, which of these two belief systems, atheism or Christianity, best describes what we know of what it is to be human, since the one that best fits the reality of our human experience is the more likely to be true.
Perhaps the most fundamental thing about being human is self-consciousness. I not only exist, I know that I exist. I not only have feelings, I know I have feelings. I not only have thoughts, I have a mind that can control and direct those thoughts. That unconscious matter could somehow give rise to consciousness and self-awareness is profoundly mysterious. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, places consciousness alongside the origin of life and the origin of the eukaryotic cell (cells with sub-cellular bodies such as nuclei and mitochondria) as the three most improbable steps in the process that led to mankind. Colin McGinn in The Mysterious Flame likens the arrival of consciousness to magic. “How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang; so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?”
Within Christianity, consciousness makes perfect sense since we understand ourselves to be creatures made in the image of a personal, self-aware God. In contrast, within naturalism mankind is the product of blind forces acting on unconscious matter. There is no known ‘mind force’ within matter which, through an accumulation of matter and complexity, could produce self-consciousness. Thus within atheism, self-consciousness is a complete mystery. Consciousness ‘just is’. It’s like getting something from nothing. As philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer put it, it’s like seeing water run uphill.
Reason and logic
Albert Einstein declared, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” It’s a deeply mysterious thing that the mind of what is thought evolutionarily to be a mere primate should be able to comprehend the universe. Yet if the human mind is the product of purely materialistic chance events, there’s no basis for trusting that our senses have any correlation with what exists outside of ourselves. How can I be sure I’m not living within a ‘Matrix’-like reality where my senses are being stimulated by a virtual-reality computer? How can we be certain that the world didn’t start five minutes ago, with all our ‘memories’ in place? Within atheism we just have to trust this is not so. Further, if our brains are the product of pure chance, if our minds are just the product of matter in motion, there’s no basis for confidence that logic, reason and mathematics can reveal anything true about the real world. It’s only reason and logic that tell us that reason and logic can be trusted. But this is to reason in a circle. How then can my ideas and thoughts be trusted to connect me truly to the reality of the world beyond my brain? If naturalism is true, I’m merely a species of primate, a monkey. Would I give credence to the ideas of a monkey? Even Charles Darwin was troubled by this. “The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
In contrast, the Christian has confidence in our rationality and our awareness of what is outside of ourselves because we have a Creator who designed the world, us, and our mental capabilities to function within this world. There is what has been called “a continuity of categories” between the mind of God, the human mind, and the world God created for us to live in.
In the atheistic worldview, the brain and its thoughts are the product of physics and chemistry, and nothing more. Melvin Konner has described the human mind as ‘a survival machine with predetermined choices.” And so-called ‘New Atheist’ philosopher Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained argues, “since our brains are only complicated biological computers, human beings are essentially robots - robots that show all the behaviour of a human being, but without any genuine consciousness.” On this view, there’s no such thing as freewill. It’s an illusion. Yet our everyday experience tells us this isn’t so. Life faces us with real choices, sometimes very difficult, even agonising, choices. Choosing a career, choosing the best school for our children, choosing to risk one’s life for another, or choosing to trust in Christ, are not pre-determined ‘going with the flow’ decisions, but the result of active free decision making. Further, we know from daily experience we can direct the thoughts of our minds, we can reflect on past events, and bid ourselves to recall things forgotten. If minds were merely the result of undirected physics and chemistry, we could direct nothing, since choices and decisions would be automatic, the slave of the physiological conditions within our skulls.
Christians, however, can be confident that our experience of freewill is genuine because mankind has been made in the image of God, who has granted us this aspect of his own personhood. Without genuine freewill, God could not treat us as free moral agents nor condemn us for making bad moral choices.
Let’s be clear from the first - one can be good without God. But one needs God to define what is good. Atheists and Christians alike adopt moral guidelines for governing human behaviour. The question is, where do these standards come from? Within Christianity, morality has its source in the character of the good and benevolent God who is revealed in Scripture. Divine law provides a measure, a standard, for judging good and evil. But what of atheism? The agnostic palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, commented “Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science.” Without God, there’s no supreme moral lawgiver to hand down rules and values for human behaviour. Similarly, we don’t receive moral education from the animal world below us. For example, we don’t consider praying mantis females immoral for eating their mates in the act of copulation, nor male lions morally defective for eating cubs fathered by rival males. If, then, morality doesn’t come from the world above or from the world beneath, from where does it arise?
Within the atheistic worldview, moral awareness must be discovered from within ourselves and thus be the product either of social conditioning and tradition, or of evolution. Recent studies by Professor Paul Bloom of Yale University have shown that even 6-month old infants have some awareness of good and bad. We are born, it seems, with an innate sense of moral awareness. Biologist Professor E.O. Wilson agrees, but states that ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” He means that though humans may well be moral agents, yet morality itself has no meaning other than as a mechanism for survival. Morality is thus a form of selfishness.
The atheistic worldview, then, fails to provide grounds for fixed moral standards; it provides no absolute moral laws, duties or obligations. Richard Dawkins agrees; “science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.” In The God Delusion he observes, “Not all [moral] absolutism is derived from religion. Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolute morals on grounds other than religious ones.” Consequently, atheism provides grounds only for moral relativism and not for moral absolutes. Within atheism, morals are a set of humanly devised, culturally accepted, norms and traditions combined with arbitrary, self-imposed personal preferences and choices. Different cultures may produce quite different sets of norms and traditions to live by, some of which you or I may find not to our taste, even abhorrent. But, on the assumptions of atheism, I cannot state that different cultural practices, even obnoxious ones, are actually immoral, for two reasons. Firstly, in atheism, as we have seen, morals are an illusion; secondly, because atheism provides no measure by which to distinguish between good and evil. Consequently, such practices as incest or bestiality cannot be said to be actually immoral, only that they offend my culturally relative moral sensitivities and prejudices.
Yet no one, not even atheists, can ultimately live with this conclusion. Even though Richard Dawkins declares that a universe without God has “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference”, (my italics), his The God Delusion is strewn with intense moral judgements. He even lists a selection from his own personal Ten Commandments.
Further, we know we have certain absolute moral obligations and duties that go far beyond mere personal moral preference. Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig argues in Reasonable Faith that things such as racism, slavery, rape and child abuse are moral absolutes - things that are wrong even if no one accepts them as wrong. We know we have certain moral obligations and duties towards others. In philosophy, these are called ‘properly basic’ or ‘foundational’ beliefs; things we intuitively know are true, even though they may be objectively unprovable. For example, the two police support officers who refused to risk their lives to save a drowning boy in a Wigan pond, on the basis that they hadn’t been trained for life saving, were criticized for failing not just their public duty, but their moral obligation.
Atheism, then, doesn’t provide an adequate explanation for our moral experience, and exhibits a profound disconnection between its theory of morality, and moral reality as we experience it in real life. In contrast, Christianity provides a solid grounding for our moral intuitions and sense of moral absolutes. Once again it’s founded on the premise that we have been created by God in the image of God, who is above all else holy and loving. That humans should be born with a sense of right and wrong is to be expected. Although this moral sense certainly needs training and guidance to lead it to maturity, God has provided us with a guidebook, a moral compass on how to live together within the limits of his own perfect character. Furthermore, although we know we constantly fail to live up to what we know is good and right, and are sometimes astonishingly blind to it, this is because of our ancestral rebellion against God and the subsequent Fall, which has distorted our moral sensitivity.
A moral objection to Christianity: If God is good, why does he allow evil?
The Christian knows that the question of morals and morality raises difficulties not just for atheism but also for Christianity. It presents us with perhaps the most common objection to our faith, how can a good and all-powerful God allow evil and the suffering of the innocent?
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the assumptions lying behind this objection. As Christian apologist and philosopher Ravi Zacharias has pointed out, the questioner who objects to Christianity because of the presence of evil in the world is actually adopting Christian categories of thought, not atheistic ones. Within atheism, as Dawkins emphasizes, there is no good or evil. They’re literally meaningless categories. Therefore, by objecting to God on the basis of a difference between good and evil, one is accepting that good and evil are objectively real, and can be distinguished between. However, if good is real and evil is real, then to differentiate them one must have a moral standard by which to measure them. And if one has such a moral measure, there must be a moral lawgiver to provide it (since in atheism there is no good and no evil to differentiate, and no measure to separate them). Thus the objection actually assumes the existence of the very thing (God) it sets out to disprove!
We return now to the original objection. The problem of evil and suffering is certainly a major difficulty for the Christian. There are, though, some pointers to a solution that can be used to support the Christian worldview. Firstly, we must take into account the infinity of God and the finitude of mankind. The ways and mind of God are far beyond ours. God may have good and valid reasons for allowing evil even if we cannot perceive them. Just because you cannot see a mosquito in the bedroom of your Spanish holiday apartment, it doesn’t mean one isn’t there - as you may discover in the morning! Secondly, if evil is such a big obstacle for the objectors, we may ask them what they intend to do about the evil they see within themselves. Thirdly, if God were to put an end to all evil, then we ourselves would all be destroyed! Or are the objectors assuming God would draw the line of tolerance just above themselves? That seems highly arbitrary and self-interested. Fourthly, if freewill is genuine, it necessarily means there is freedom to make moral choices and thus to choose evil as well as good. The alternative is to be moral robots, which apparently God doesn’t want. Fifthly, God has and is doing something about evil. God has condemned evil and punished it at the cross, bestowing forgiveness through Christ and the power to recognize and overcome evil through the Spirit.
Human beings are the only creatures that worship. Every known culture and society that’s been studied has had some sort of awareness of a being or beings beyond and greater than themselves. People are born with an innate inclination to believe in God. Dr Justin Barratt of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind, found that young children are born with a predisposition to believe in a supreme being, and are natural ‘creationists’. Barratt thinks children have faith even though they may have never been taught about it by family or at school. (It makes one wonder how it is that churches in the West do so poorly in nurturing this instinct into adult faith.) So, although religion in itself isn’t something that is imposed by society or culture but arises naturally from within, yet particular beliefs and practices are indeed culturally conditioned.
But why should humans be born with a religious inclination? Within atheism, it makes little sense, since religion is so individually costly in time, energy and material resources. But if mankind has been created by God for the purpose of relationship with God, then within Christianity it makes perfect sense. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis likens the ubiquitous religious instinct to that of a newborn baby who instinctively cries with hunger for a food it has, as yet, no knowledge of. The very existence of the religious hunger implies there must be something able to satisfy it.
In this fourth article we’ve seen how our common personal experience of human nature accords perfectly with our being created by a transcendent personal God. In contrast, naturalistic explanations of consciousness, reason, freewill, morality and religion are all severely problematic. An argument for God from morality in particular can be especially powerful in apologetics, since almost everyone has a deep sense of moral discernment, even though the dividing line between what is moral or not may be drawn at different places. Even moral relativists can be persuaded into admitting the existence of some absolute moral obligations and duties, if provided with appropriate examples, such as slavery, rape or incest. Once these are admitted, it’s very hard to resist concluding there must be a transcendent moral law-giver.