Mind over matter: why death is not the end

By Justin Lathlean

Suddenly, I was wide awake. My heart racing at a hundred miles an hour. My thoughts spiralling out of control. As I was drifting off to sleep my fate suddenly dawned on me, as if for the very first time, like a repressed memory that had suddenly resurfaced. Death. The inescapable destiny that awaits us all. The dreadful knowledge that one day you, I and everybody we love will cease to exist and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. This realisation had come out of nowhere. I was not in any immediate danger or suffering from a life threatening illness. The thought had just come over me. The horrible finality of my death had somehow become very real to me and I was gripped with fear.

If we are honest each of us have probably had a similar experience at one time or another. Perhaps not exactly like mine but a sudden moment where life’s brevity and ultimate trajectory have become acutely obvious leaving us feeling hopeless and afraid. And it’s not surprising why, as the American philosophy William Hirstein explains:

“The truth is depressing. We are going to die, most likely after illness; all our friends will likewise die; we are tiny insignificant dots on a tiny planet. Perhaps with the advent of broad intelligence and foresight comes the need for… self-deception to keep depression and its consequent lethargy at bay. There needs to be a basic denial of our finitude and insignificance in the larger scene. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah just to get out of bed in the morning.”[1]

The first time this reality started to sink in for me was as a teenager walking along a beach with a friend. Looking out at the vastness of the ocean they turned to me and asked ‘What do you think happens to us when we die?’ Surprised by their question I shrugged and simply said ‘I don’t know. I suppose we go to heaven.’ Unimpressed with my answer they preceded to ask another, ‘Do you remember what it was like before you were born? Well, that’s what it will be like when you are dead. Nothing. You won’t feel or know anything. You’ll just be dead.’ Hearing this argument for the first time was quite convincing even if it was unsettling. It took me a while to realise the full implications of this idea, and its naturalistic origins, but for a long time I felt hopeless by the thought that everything I did, all that I was, would eventually be forgotten. I think this was where Bertrand Russell was coming from when he said:

 “There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.”[2]

Some people find the non-existence of an afterlife quite liberating. They can cope with the disappointment of not going to heaven so long as they don’t spend eternity in hell. What’s more, without an all-powerful and all-knowing God watching over everything we do we are free to live our lives the way we want, with nothing holding us back. The here and now is all that matters so make the most of it. This is the view expressed by the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent interview with Larry King (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ydckb2pefKo).  For Tyson, life is simply a matter of energy. Our bodies require energy to keep us alive and once we no longer can acquire the energy we need to keep our bodies functioning we die, along with our consciousness. There’s no reason to fear death because we won’t know that we are dead.  Rather, fear a mediocre and insignificant life.

This line of argument isn’t particularly new. In fact, King Solomon made the same point in the book of Ecclesiastes more than two thousand years ago:

“As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”[3]

Whilst Solomon used this type of language to raise important philosophical discussions that would ultimately lead to God, a modern day materialist would argue the same thing but potential end up at nihilism since we are no different to animals. We are just an intellectually advanced species of primates with an unusual capacity to invent languages and tell stories. But why then do we still believe in such fairy tales? What value do we get from believing in a lie? Well, as Jonathan Gottschall and other evolutionary physiologists explain, religion (and belief in the afterlife) are useful stories we tell ourselves to help us cope with the harsh realities of life:

“The conventional secular explanation of religion is that humans invent gods to give order and meaning to existence. Humans are born curious, and they must have answers to the big, unanswerable questions: Why am I here? Who made me? Where does the sun go at night? Why does giving birth hurt? What happens to “me” after I die – not my raggedy old carcass, but me, that endlessly chattering presence inside my skull? This is, in essence, an [evolutionary] by-product explanation of religion, and it is the one that most current evolutionary thinkers embrace. We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums. In sacred fiction, we find the master confabulations of the storytelling mind.”[4]

So it’s all in our heads. Everything can be explained away by the evolutionary process. Our enlarged brains, which at first gave us a tactful advantage over other species struggling to survive, has now become somewhat of a burden. Whilst it has given as the ability to think abstractly, our human brain has now become liable to self-deception and delusional ideas of self-importance. Science, it seems, has revealed the origins of our obsession with the afterlife and immortality as nothing more than a concoction of our over inflated brains. We can no longer claim to have special access to supernatural knowledge more than a fish knows how to live out of water. This is the narrative being summarised by journalist and social commentator James Le Fanu:

“The ascendancy of science in the mid-nineteenth century left no space for the reality of that inner first-person self or soul, whose non-materiality both falls outside and poses a challenge to its exclusive materialist claims to knowledge. That ascendancy rather required that man be knocked from his pedestal and his exceptionality denied, by incorporating him into the evolutionary framework where his mind would become ‘nothing but’ the consequence of the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of his brain.”[5]

But if all life is is matter then why does life matter? By reducing human beings to nothing more than a collection of molecules and atoms how can we continue to live lives full of purpose and meaning all the while knowing such things are only an illusion, an unintended evolutionary by-product?

It all depends on whether we consider mass-energy, that is, everything in the observable universe, to be primary or derivative. If mass-energy is primary then nothing exists outside the physical universe. Life and matter has simply come about by purely naturalistic processes without any assistance from a transcendent being. On the other hand, if mass-energy is derivative, that is, it is dependent on a supernatural creator (as the Big Bang Theory suggests) then mass-energy isn’t the ultimate substance in the universe and there could be more to our existence than bone and sinew. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

So on one level we are a collection of atoms and particles doomed to die. Whilst on the other hand we are also part of an eternal spiritual world. If this is true it would explain why, regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds, we have an overwhelming desire to seek meaning and purpose in our lives. If there was a God who created us and placed us in the universe surely he would have a reason for doing so. We shouldn’t be surprised if we find some inbuilt compass pointing us back to our creator. Again, C.S. Lewis does an excellent job at explaining this point: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” This is also what King Solomon meant when he said:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”[6]

Once we realise that we are more than the sum of our parts, that there is more to us than what can be observed through a microscope, we begin to understand that life will not ultimately end in death. That we don’t cease to exist but instead continue onto another realm of existence which will last forever. As Jesus told his disciples:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7]

So who is this One who decides whether or not we enjoy this eternal paradise? And what certainty can we have that we will be admitted? Does everyone get a free ticket regardless of who they are or what they have done? Or do some people get rejected? And if so, what happens to them? Will they suffer for all eternity? These are all reasonable questions that usually pop-up whenever there’s a serious discussion about the afterlife.

Whilst every religion or worldview tries to answer these questions in their own way I want to say that biblical Christianity provides the only coherent and intellectually defensible case for what happens to us after we die. For at the heart of Christianity is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who the apostle John identifies as: the ‘Word’ who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made. Surely, if anyone knows what lies beyond the grave they should have such credentials.

Throughout his life, Jesus said and did many things that both amazed and confused people. This includes the time when Jesus was speaking to Martha shortly after her brother Lazarus had died. He told her: 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”[8]

Likewise, when Thomas, with the rest of the disciples, asked Jesus how to get eternal life he responded:

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [9]

Essentially, what Jesus is claiming in both these interactions is that He is the One who decides who gets into heaven; He is the One knows what happens after we die; and He is the One who determines what happens to our souls.’

For those who don’t know much else about Jesus this can be quite disturbing. To think, some middle-eastern man who lived two thousand years ago will decide whether or not I am good enough to go to heaven or suffer in hell for all eternity. Sounds ridiculous. However, Jesus didn’t claim to be just an ordinary man, but rather the Man. God himself incarnate, which he proved through many miraculous signs and wonders. In Jesus, we see God’s invisible qualities being made known to us. His unfailing love and compassion for the poor and needy. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah, he responded:

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”[10]

Jesus’ life was one marked out by service. A life dedicated to the betterment of others. Whilst he could have easily exerted his divine authority over the world, bringing judgment on all of humanity; He instead chose to humble himself by stepping down into space-time to take the punishment we all deserve. So it’s here at the foot of the cross that we are ultimately assured of God’s great love for us. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.[11] Once we see Jesus in this way it becomes much easier to trust him with the eternal destiny of our souls, and those of everyone around us.

Now, it would be easy to finish by saying that Christians, therefore, do not fear death for they know that their eternal salvation has been made secure by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is true that some Christians can honestly say that they no longer fear death. However, this is not something that happens automatically. Like a lot of things it takes practice. We have to continuously remind ourselves that despite the bleak outlook that says we are nothing but stardust, there is an immaterial God – an ultimate Mind behind the cosmos – who thought of us before the world began and will not let us see decay.  It’s when I remind myself of these things that I can say, like the Apostle Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”[12]


[1] William Hirstein (2006) Cognitive Science: An Introduction to Mind and Brain, New York & London: Routledge (pg. 237).

[2] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (Longmans Green, 1918)

[3] Ecclesiastes 3: 18-21.

[4] Jonathan Gottschall, The Story Telling Animal (pg. 120-121).

[5] James Le Fanu, Why Us? (pg. 151)

[6] Eccelesiates 3:11

[7] Matthew 10:28

[8] John 11: 25-26.

[9] John 14:6

[10] Matthew 11:4-5

[11] John 10:11

[12] 1 Corithians 15:55

The Humanistic Worldview of Sam Harris

By Makito Miyashita

This essay examines the works of Sam Harris, outlining the explanatory power of his world view, assessing its coherence, and offering a Christian response. Harris’ concern is that Humanity is headed to a detrimental End, as religious faith, (what he sees as incompatible beliefs about the world) is causing people to kill each other.[1] Harris asserts that science, knowledge, and reason can save human society from imploding, as they can objectively adjudicate between opposing views.  

In The End of Faith, Harris concludes as follows: “Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime? We are all bound together.”[2] This quote encapsulates much of Harris’s world view.

All people have an outlook upon the world, whether explicit or implicit. A good world view can answer the following six basic questions well, in a logically consistent way, and in a way that resonates with our lived experience. These are questions of Ontology (What is ultimate reality? Is there anything beyond what can be physically observed?), Epistemology (How do we get to know this reality?), Anthropology (What is a human? Who or what am I?), Eschatology (Where are we headed? What is my purpose or goal in life? What happens when we die?), Morality (How do I know what is Good and what is Bad? What is right and what is wrong?) and Polity (How do we live together as a society?).

Getting back to Harris, epistemologically, he appeals to human reason as the key to knowing and as he asserts his appeal is based on evidence and reason, he assumes that his readers will share his viewpoint. Ontologically, his statement implies that there is nothing beyond the natural, physically observable world, and therefore, eschatologically, nothing follows death. Consequently, for Harris, morality boils down to ‘be kind to each other’, and since ones’ actions affect others, human polity should take the form of a global civilization organised around a universal morality, based on observable scientific data.[3] 

As a philosophical naturalist, Harris disregards the supernatural, and any ‘evidence’ for the existence of the supernatural a priori. That is, before looking at the evidence, he has made a judgment about what counts as valid evidence in the first place.  Any belief, according to Harris should be based on evidence, with the corollary that anything with insufficient evidence should be discarded.[4]

As a naturalist, and a ‘believer’ in science, he disregards any claims based on history, because historical ‘evidence’ cannot be replicated.

However, accepting evidence, either scientific or historical, requires the same process of trust, or ‘faith’ in the person or instrument that reveals the information about said topic.  Thus, Harris needs to either accept or deny both as valid forms of evidenceIn this context, Harris could benefit from his own statement: “If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? [5]  As C.S. Lewis said, ‘if Naturalism is true, then we do know in advance that miracles are impossible: nothing can come into Nature from the outside because there is nothing outside to come in, Nature being everything.’[6] Yet, if nature is not the sum total of everything, then there is no reason to exclude the naturally impossible occurring due to power deriving from outside of nature.

That is to say, God has revealed himself to humanity by coming into this world from outside of creation, in the person of Jesus (John 1), the evidence of whose death and resurrection have been historically validated.

Harris has an optimistic anthropology and eschatology,[7]  claiming that ‘Despite our perennial bad behaviour, our moral progress seems to me to be unmistakable… Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past.’ He also espouses a moral realism predicating the existence of a definite good and a definite bad. He rightly exposes the weakness of moral relativism,[8] and asserts that the ‘good’ should be what upholds the well-being of conscious creatures.[9] Harris argues that “Well-being” is a scientific, objective measure which can be used as a universal measurement of morality. According to Harris, "It makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is 'good',"[10] This is true, since he has redefined moral ‘good’ with non-moral ‘well-being.’ "Good and evil” he asserts “need only consist in this: misery versus well-being." [11]

However, by grounding Morality in naturalism, deriving the ethical “what we ‘ought’ to do”, in the “naturally observable what ‘is’”, any real sense of right or wrong slips away. For example, the statement “racism is wrong,” only means “When I encounter a racist comment, the part of my brain that registers displeasure gets activated.”  

Harris also states that science is truly objective and can be the arbiter of truth and morality.  Yet Harris does not give any reason why objectivity and truth, which are his preeminent values, should be valued in the first place. Far from being an objective judge of the evidence, Harris approaches the world from his value system, moving from values to facts. 

The problem is, Science is not as objective as first seems.[12]  Furthermore, being a naturalist, Harris believes that everything that man experiences, including the experience of evil, can be explained as mental states. As a determinist, he argues that humans do not have free will, which makes space for greater compassion and forgiveness.[13]  Essentially, everything bad becomes an accident. Yet, the assertion that free will is an illusion is detrimental to living in community and is quite dehumanising. Without ‘free will’ it is impossible to hold people responsible for their actions, thus leading ultimately to evil ceasing to be evil, as well as any good that we espouse as actually good, and this undermines both Harris’s quest for the salvation of humanity, and his thesis that there is an objective morality.

Referring to the lack of free will, Harris argues that “The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behaviour.”  However, if this is the case, then his moral outrage towards religious believers should disappear, for according to Harris, they believe in ‘irrational ideas’, not of their own volition, but because of material brain chemistry over which they have no control.[14] Further, Harris posits that “happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events…changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world… During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.”[15] This statement completely undermines Harris’s thesis that there is an objective ‘Good’ and ‘Bad.’ He has done an about turn from his original claim, saying that the subjective outlook on life determines wellbeing, rather than, what can be empirically measured. 

In a nutshell, Harris’s argument is, firstly, the experience of evil is simply a matter of brain states, and so it is not actually evil.  Secondly, if this experience was inflicted on you by a person, it is not evil, since nobody has the free will chose to do anything. And finally, if the experience is painful, just alter your outlook and it won’t be so bad.  This is immensely un-compassionate and has no comfort to offer in the face of real suffering that we experience.

Why should anyone ignore ‘pain’ as evidence that something is not as it should be, and who will account for the physical damage caused by one to another? The Bible offers an alternate explanation of wrongful human behaviour: Sin, from which we need salvation, and a more freeing vision for justice, namely that God will carry it out (e.g. Rom 12:19).

In Lying, Harris states that ‘To lie is to recoil from relationship’[16] noting that “by lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is… In this way, every lie haunts our future.”[17]  This indeed is damaging to our polity. However, he needs to go further. Lies destroy relationships, because as Harris notices, relationships are built on trust, which is rendered impossible if one discovers that the other person in the relationship has given false information. The Bible describes how Satan is the father of all lies, who deceived the first Man (Gen 3, John 8:44), from whom we are all descended.  It also provides explanations about the nature of God, mankind and the universe. Could it be that the Bible offers a more realistic solution to the concerns Harris himself raises? What if Harris’s world view, that the observable physical world is all there is, is actually the lie that Satan has fed humanity, to destroy our relationship with God, the author of life, and with each other, thus making human polity, in the form of a global society, impossible to achieve?   

Harris wants what is a ‘Christian’ moral order, yet he presents no grounds for people to adopt his outlook, as he denies the ontological ‘fact’ that underpins everything. Harris believes that good reasoning based on Scientific fact will save humanity.

However, only a God who is external to creation and not a part of it, can judge the world impartially. Thus, in terms of morality, the resurrection of Jesus becomes our cue.[18]  Because Jesus was resurrected, ‘human values’ arrived at independently of God, are judged as by God as ‘sin’, and the perfect righteousness that Jesus lived is upheld.

However, given the evil rampant in human society, we begin to see that humanity itself is the problem and so more information or logic cannot, in and of itself, enable humans save themselves by being “anything but kind” to each other. Efficacious salvation must derive from outside humanity. It must come from and can only come from Jesus, who is himself God, outside of this creation, yet who has come into this creation, who can reveal to us the true reality about what is, who God is, and who we are, where we are headed, what is right and wrong, and how we can live together.

For kind of society that Harris wants, a transformation of the human character is required. Christianity posits that this transformation is possible due to the historically validated life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s divine son.  Such transformation into the compassionate likeness of Jesus, holds the only possibility of achieving Harris’s moral world where no-one would “want to be anything but kind” to everyone else. This transformation is displayed within the Christian community. [19] Yet the ‘goodness’ of this message should not be judged by Christian practice (after all the Bible does not teach us that we will be able to live a perfect life, even for Christians), but on the goodness of the God who is willing to die for humanity’s sake.


 

Bibliography


[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 12; Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 10-25.

[2] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 226.

[3] Harris, The Moral Landscape, 7.

[4] Harris, The Moral Landscape, 144.

[5] Sam Harris, Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, United States – April 2011  https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-the-foundation-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-harris-deba/

[6] Clive. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (Glasgow: Collins 1982), 14.

[7] Harris, Moral Landscape, 177.

[8] Harris, Moral Landscape, 43-45.

[9] Harris, Moral Landscape, 12.

[10] Harris, Moral Landscape, 12.

[11] Harris, Moral Landscape 198.

[12] William A. Wilson, ‘The Myth of Scientific Objectivity’, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, (November 2017): 27-34. Cited 17/10/2018. Online: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/the-myth-of-scientific-objectivity.

[13] Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012), 45.

[14] Harris, Free Will, 55.

[15] Sam Harris, Waking Up (New York: Simon & Schuster 2014), 204.

[16] Sam Harris, Lying (Los Angeles: Four Elephant Press 2013), 41. Kindle.

[17] Sam Harris, Lying (Los Angeles: Four Elephant Press 2013), 41. Kindle.

[18] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (2nd ed.; Leicester: Apollos, 1994), 13-15.

[19] Craig R. Hovey, What Makes Us Moral?: Science, Religion and the Shaping of the Moral Landscape: A Christian Response to Sam Harris (London: SPCK) 2012. 82-101.

Burden of proof: are atheists on the wrong side of reason?

By Justin Lathlean

The French Mathematician and Physicist Pierre-Simon, the marquis de Laplace, once famously responded to Napoléon Bonaparte when he was asked why he never made any reference to God in his impressive five-volume Mécanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics), by saying “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Laplace’s response has since become somewhat of a motto for many modern day atheists, who use it to justify their reasons for not only their disbelief in God but also their apathy towards even considering the possibility of God’s existence. “Atheism needs no defence,” insists philosopher Michael Scriven, “in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence, atheism is the default position.”[1] It’s as if, as one atheist explained to me, we find an extra TV cable not listed in the instruction manual. The television seems to work fine without it so we throw the cable away[2]. Similarly, belief in the existence of God is unnecessary; the world functions exactly according to our current scientific knowledge. So there is no need to invoke a supernatural intelligence that determines every naturalistic process and gives purpose to our lives. To quote Richard Dawkins:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[3]

By framing the question as a test for God’s existence, and not for his non-existence, the default position is that there is no evidence for the existence of God. This is because scientific hypotheses can never be proven true but they can easily be proven false. For example, if somebody claims that all swans are white after observing a large flock of white swans, their observation does not prove their assertion to be true. Contradictory evidence in the form of a single black swan, however, makes it clear that such an assertion is obviously false. 

So it would seem that many atheists have dealt themselves the upper hand and placed the burden of proof on theists to provide evidence for God’s existence. But is this justified? Is it fair to automatically assume a lack of evidence for God’s existence? Some would argue, as does the Christian philosopher Paul Copan, that:

“…being a real atheist is just plain tough. It requires more than just debunking arguments for God’s existence. An agnostic could do this without becoming an atheist. The atheist’s task is considerably more challenging: she has to give reasons why God does not or cannot exist.”[4]

So why do so many atheists ignore their obligation to justify their faith and presume that they are on the side of reason?

Perhaps they believe that scientific advances over the last two centuries has significantly eroded belief in God and shifted the balance of evidence towards atheism. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, for example, claim that the God-hypothesis has been repeatedly disproven by advances in scientific knowledge, especially since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, which ‘emancipated’ humans from the bondage of religious superstition. Atheists who hold such positions, however, often ignore non-scientific evidence from disciplines such as philosophy, theology and history claiming that only science is capable of discerning objective truth. As did the Scottish philosopher David Hume who famously said:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”[5]

What Hume is basically saying is that if a discipline involves neither scientific experimentation nor mathematical formula then it cannot be trusted. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it fails to pass its own test. Humes’ statement is neither scientific nor mathematical but philosophical, which by his own admissions is not a legitimate area of study.

So how do we judge whether a theory or worldview is correct? The answer - which seems relatively trivial at first, yet extremely difficult in practice – is to evaluate all the evidence, not just the disciplines that we are naturally inclined or familiar with. But how do we actually do this? How do we systematically evaluate evidence for and against a particular theory in an unbiased and objective manner? Is it even possible?

Fortunately, many people throughout history have attempted to address this same issue. One such person was the English Franciscan friar and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347) who developed the problem solving principle often referred to as Occam’s Razor. This principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Sometimes referred to as the inference to the best possible explanation, Occam’s Razor is widely used within many disciples and commonly arises in debates arguing for and against the existence of God. In what follows I will try to use this principle to evaluate whether science, morality and the existence of suffering support atheism or theism.  

SCIENCE

Many atheists claim that science has buried God; that nothing exists outside the natural universe and that everything can or will eventually be explained by natural deterministic processes. There is no purpose behind the universe nor any divine authority determining right from wrong. We only perceive that our lives have meaning or that there is an objective Law-giver because our over-enlarged brains have concocted such ideas to help our species survive: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”[6]

The theist, however, would claim that science hasn’t buried God; but rather that science points towards God. They would argue that as successful as science has been at explaining how things work it is powerless to explain why they work. As the philosopher Richard Swinburne says: “I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains.”[7] Like the philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), theistic scientists have learnt to distinguish between how and why questions by referring to them as primary or secondary causalities. That is, natural processes such as the birth and death of stars, the formation of galaxies and the evolution of life “can exist in complex causal relationships, without in any way refuting their ultimate dependency upon God as final cause.”[8] If I ask my Wife why the kettle is boiling? She might respond by saying “the heat generated by the flames is being transferred through the base of the copper kettle where it is being absorbed by the water inside. As more and more heat is absorbed by the water, the molecules become increasingly energised to the point where they begin to undergo a phase-shift converting from a liquid to a vapour.” Or she might simply respond “because I wanted some tea.” Both answers are correct. One appeals to that of mechanism, whilst the other to that of agency. Many atheists argue, however, that if there was such a divine agent shouldn’t we all be able to detect his presence? Or at least observe him more easily? To answer this question we have to go beyond science because it is powerless to detect anything that exists outside the physical dimension.

MORALITY

The eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said: “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.” Science can, to some degree, explain to us how the starry heavens came to be but it cannot explain why we all have an inbuilt understanding of right and wrong. Evolutionary definitions of morality fall short of explaining the reality that a universal moral code is present within every single human being and why it is totally unique within the animal kingdom. Whilst societies may hold superficially different moral standards, they are, nonetheless, fundamentally similar at their core. That is, they all uphold the golden rule: treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself. If evolutionary explanations of such universal morality were true then it would naturally follow that these rules should only apply to individuals within close family units or tribes. That way, even if an individual sacrifices him or herself for somebody else there is still a high chance that their genes will be passed on to the next generation. However, this falls short of explaining why so many people feel the need to care for the sick, minister to the poor and rescue complete strangers. Even evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins appreciates the unique nature of this predicament:

“[Human beings] can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.”[9]

So it’s not surprising then that many people attribute the ‘moral law within’ to a transcendent mind or being. One such person was the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis who argued strongly for the existence of God from morality. This argument, whilst not providing watertight proof of God’s existence, works on the premises that everyone believes in objective moral truths and that these moral truths are not like the laws of nature, which simply tell us was is and not what ought to be; leading us to conclude that a single ‘intelligence behind or beyond nature has implanted the knowledge of right and wrong in us and acts as the foundation for the objectivity of our moral judgments.’[10] Elsewhere, Lewis uses the following analogy of an architect and a house to elaborate on what the moral argument is trying to say:

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions? ”[11]

Many atheists and agnostics argue differently. They reason that because everyone makes the same fundamental moral assumptions, regardless of their belief in God, it’s more logical to conclude that God does not exist. Otherwise, theists would be expected to live morally superior lives in comparison to atheists because they have access to a divine moral code. The fact is, however, that atheists are capable of leading morally superior lives than many theists. This supposedly counter-intuitive pattern of moral behaviour between believers and non-believers does not necessary debunk the argument of God’s existence from morality, as Timothy Keller explains:

“Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians morally and in wisdom. Properly understood, the doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us. Similarly, the doctrine of [common] grace means that unbelievers are never as messed up as their false worldview should make them.”[12]

The atheist’s position becomes even harder to justify when they try to build a moral framework without appealing to a transcendent being to objectively ground their moral assertions. Yet this is exactly what the secular humanist movement is trying to achieve. By making human beings the measure of all things they are begging the question: Which human being? Which human culture? Which human age? Without a divine moral-law-giver, or the prospect of divine retribution, we are unable to counteract Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s age old dilemma:

“Now assume that there is no God, or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds, if I am to die entirely on earth? … And if that is so, why shouldn’t I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man’s throat, rob and steal?”[13]

Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the existence of a universal moral code sits more comfortably with a theistic worldview than a secular or naturalistic one. Otherwise, morality is simply a human construct that can be modified or discarded at the whim of any individual or society. Perhaps the rejection of a universal moral law as evidence for God’s existence is more of an emotional response rather than an intellectual one. For if we admit that an external omniscient God is responsible for basic moral standards then we would not only lose our autonomy to decide how we should live, but we would also realise just how incapable we are at reaching God’s standards. The depravity of man is also a fundamental concept for understanding how a good and loving God could permit evil and suffering.

SUFFERING

The existence and seemingly pointlessness of suffering is perhaps the single most common reason people choose not to believe in God. For if God is truly all-powerful and all-loving then how could He allow us to suffer. Why not create a world without pain and suffering, where there are no mass shootings, suicide bombers, tsunamis, earthquakes and children dying of cancer. Why not create a world full of peace, joy and harmony, where everybody gets along and nobody experiences pain or death. Since the world is not like this then either God loves us but is powerless to prevent suffering or He could eliminate suffering but chooses not to and therefore is not loving.

In attempting to reconcile the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world teeming with pain and suffering many theologians and philosophers have been quick to recognise that there is a vast difference between addressing the intellectual barriers to suffering compared to the emotional and psychological obstacles. By way of example, cancer will appear very different to the patient suffering from the disease compared to the oncologist giving the diagnosis. In what follows, I argue that only the personal, loving and just God of Christianity can make sense of both the intellectual and emotional difficulties associated with suffering.

The first intellectual argument against God, due to the existence of suffering, is closely linked to the argument for God’s existence from morality discussed above. For anyone who claims that suffering is evil and incompatible with an all-loving God is making a circular argument, as Alister McGrath, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, explains:

"An argument from the existence of evil to the nonexistence of God depends on establishing that suffering is indeed evil. But this is not an empirical observation - it is a moral judgment. Suffering is natural; for it to be evil, a moral framework has to be presupposed. But where does this framework come from? The argument requires the existence of an absolute moral framework if it is to work. Yet the existence of an absolute framework is itself widely seen as pointing to God's existence. In the end, the nonexistence of God seems to end up depending on God's existence."[14]

Now granted, someone could object to this line of reasoning by saying all truth is relative and there is no such thing as an absolute moral law. The problem with this argument is that it too is self-defeating: if all truth is relative and nothing is absolute, does that include the statement ‘all truth is relative?’ Furthermore, without an absolute moral framework established by a transcendent moral being it is illogical to describe anything as evil since that is just how things are, as Timothy Keller points out:

“People, we believe ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction and violence of the strong against the weak – these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair and unjust?”[15]

So how then do we reconcile the existence of pain and suffering with the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God?

Some argue that the end justifies the means. In a fallen world where mankind is described as being separated from God, the primary objective of an all-loving God is to redeem as many people as possible, saving them from eternal alienation. However, God is also a God of justice and it would not be fair if He were to simply click His fingers and suddenly everyone receives eternal life. God wants genuine repentance and for this to be possible He needed to give us free will and the capacity to choose right from wrong. Unfortunately, as the bible tells us, we have all decided to reject God and have fallen short His standards[16]. Without His undeserved mercy and grace we are all headed down a one-way track to being eternally excluded from His presence. However, many of us remain blissfully unaware of our predicament and rarely take the time to consider our eternal destiny until it’s too late. Pain and suffering, could therefore be one way in which God reminds us of our brokenness and finitude. As C.S. Lewis explains:

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[17]

Of course, we would not wish these things upon ourselves, or on anyone else for that matter, but once on the other side, we begin to see that there was perhaps a greater purpose behind such trials, as if some greater intelligence had orchestrated the whole thing for our ultimate good. And if this can be true for improving the quality and outcome of our earthly lives, then how much more would this be true for improving the quality and outcome of our eternal lives, if such a life exists of course. Note that the atheist cannot provide such a hope, either regarding our earthly lives or eternal ones, since without God there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

At this point, some might interject, as some atheists do, by saying: “Does God really need so much pain and suffering to achieve his ends? Is there any conceivable good purpose behind so many children dying every day of starvation and disease? How are they helped by the rest of us becoming more sympathetic?”[18]

This is a fair point. It’s not just that suffering exists in the world but that there is an over-abundance of it, which, for the most part, appears indiscriminate and pointless. Surely God did not need to go to such extravagant lengths to get us to notice him. Couldn’t he have simply invented a world with only a little bit of suffering, just enough to build our character and encourage us to seek his help when necessary? Perhaps. But suppose God wants more than just a transactional relationship with us. Perhaps God is more interested in a relationship based on complete and unconditional reliance on him, not just an intermittent relationship based on convenience. C.S. Lewis described this latter relationship as a ‘parachute-faith’ – it’s only deployed when absolutely necessary. Furthermore, who are we to judge God for failing to create a world that suits our personal preferences and expectations? How are we to know if things could have been any different if the ultimate goal was for us to freely know and love God? The simple fact of the matter is that we are not God and our knowledge and understanding of various pros and cons of building a universe with the possibility of free-will is significantly limited, as Paul Copan explains:

"Consider the problem of evil. Sceptics may support their negative stance toward God by pointing to many baffling evils that appear pointless. So, they infer, God couldn't have a reason for them. But is this charge a fair one? Actually, no… it doesn't follow that, just because a finite human like me doesn't know these reasons, an all-wise God couldn't have morally sufficient reasons for permitting these evils. We just aren't properly positioned to know the mind of God."[19]

Now, as I mentioned earlier, responding to the problem of pain and suffering can take two forms; an intellectual response or an emotional response. Whilst I believe the points above address many of the intellectual obstacles to how an all-powerful and all-loving God could allow suffering to exist, it is often the emotional or psychological objections that we truly struggle with. Many of us who have experienced deep pain and loss would find these intellectual explanations dry and unhelpful, especially in the middle of such trials. Indeed, C.S. Lewis once quipped: “If only this toothache would go away, I could write another chapter on the problem of pain.” This is where a Biblical-worldview can provide an emotional response where other worldviews cannot.

In the Biblical-worldview, pain and suffering is the consequence of the fall, where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and in so doing directly went against God’s explicit request. At this point it does not matter whether you believe in a literal Adam and Eve. What’s important is that as the ‘representatives’ of the human species Adam and Eve, like the rest of us, turned their back on God and decided to live their own way. As such, there is now amnesty between every human being, and, most significantly, between us and God and the whole earth is affected.[20] But far from leaving us in such a destitute state, the story of the Bible repeatedly shows God’s relentless grace and forgiveness for us, culminating in the dramatic sacrificial life, death and resurrection of his one and only Son. What should have been our punishment, Jesus took upon himself. God does not keep his distance and say ‘I told you so.’ Instead, he humbles himself in the most extravagant way possible by becoming a ‘suffering-servant,’[21] choosing to bear the shame and agony of the cross so that we might experience reconciliation with God.

Now, whatever game God is playing at here, one thing is certain, no other religion or world-view even comes close to placing God at the centre of the solution for eradicating pain and suffering. Buddhism says pain just needs to be ignored, Hinduism says suffering is well-deserved, Islam says God is testing us through suffering, Judaism sees pain and suffering as God’s tool for judgment, and atheism, well it doesn’t even try to give a reason for pain and suffering, it just is, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Only Christianity provides a sufficient, all-encompassing explanation for the existence and purpose of suffering, as Alister McGrath points out:

“The familiar image of a wounded, suffering Christ on the cross, when rightly interpreted, speaks of God’s solidarity with those suffering and the possibility of renewal and restoration. It can also be developed intellectually, in terms of Christ entering into the vale of human sorrow and pain in order to transform it.”[22]

THE VERDICT

I do not expect that this short essay has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that atheism is on the wrong side of reason. Indeed, I don’t believe that any intellectual argument could ever prove the existence or non-existence of God; just like I could never prove to you that other minds exists[23] or that your spouse loves you. We can only evaluate such claims based on the evidence available to us at the time.  There will always be some degree of uncertainty, otherwise, faith would be redundant. And rest assured, we all have faith in something. The atheist puts his faith in intellectual arguments for the non-existence of God, whilst the theist puts his faith in God, not simply as an idea, but as a personal being capable of communicating truths to us. The Pastor Dick Lucas recalls a conversation with a sceptic who said they “would be happy to believe in Christianity if the cleric could only give him a watertight argument for the truth.” The pastor replied, “What if God hasn’t given us a watertight argument, but rather a watertight person?[24]

So, if this sounds like you; somebody who is sceptical about the existence of God but is nonetheless willing to following the evidence, wherever it may lead; then I encourage you, start doubting your doubt. Question your assumptions. Seek unbiased opinions. Ask yourself, ‘have I unknowingly let my scepticism blind me from seeing all the available evidence? Do I actively challenge my beliefs? Or do I simply collect snippets of information that enable me to maintain any prior convictions?’

If the answer to any of these question is ‘I’m not sure,’ then the only way to be sure is to venture beyond your comfort zone; past the opinions that serve only to reinforce what you already know. Place yourself squarely in the other side’s camp and see things from their perspective. Only then will you be able to say with any confidence that you’ve left no stone unturned and that your opinion is a valid one. And who knows, you might just discover what many who have gone before you discovered, that “a little science estranges a man from God; a lot of science brings him back.”[25]


[1] Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 102.

[2] This analogy begins to break down when we ask: by whose standards does this world appear fine? Perhaps we are looking at the wrong user manual. Perhaps the superfluous cable is actually vital for getting access to additional channels, all in high definition. Sure the TV works fine without it, but it’s so much better with the extra cable.

[3] George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 365.

[4] Paul Copan, A Little Book for New Philosophers, p71-72

[5] David Hume, ??

[6] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

[7] Richard Swinburne, Is there a God?

[8] Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics, pg. 84

[9] Richard Dawkins, Ibid, 200-201.

[10] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 3-8.

[11] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (pg. 21)

[12] Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavour, pg. 191.

[13] Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein, eds, Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987, 446.

[14] Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics, pg 163

[15] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pg 26

[16] Romans 3:23

[17] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

[18] Victor J. Stenger, God The Failed Hypothesis, pg. 219.

[19] Paul Copan, A Little Book for New Philosophers, pg. 109

[20] Romans 8:22

[21] Isaiah 53:11

[22] Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics, pg. 53.

[23] “Philosopher Alvin Plantinga made this point years ago, with reference to the perennial problem of “other minds.” You can’t absolutely prove that other people have minds. But nobody’s unduly bothered about this. It’s a safe assumption, and chimes in with the way things seem to be. Plantinga then argues for a parallel between proving the existence of “other minds” and proving the existence of God. Neither can be proved, he argues, and good arguments can be raised against both – but to their defenders, both seem entirely reasonable.” - Timothy Keller

[24] Sermon by Dick Lucas, quoted by Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pg. 232.

[25] Francis Bacon