I Don’t Want There To Be A God

Thomas Nagel is one of the premier philosophers living today. This is one reason why his recent criticisms of Darwinism have caused such a stir. In his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong, Nagel argues that materialism is incapable of explaining the phenomena of human consciousness. One thing that makes Nagel’s criticisms especially noteworthy is that he is a militant atheist. But he is an honest atheist. In an earlier work, The Last Word, in a chapter entitled “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion,” Nagel makes a candid admission:

“I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”–The Last Word, 130-31.

Nagel explains that at the root of his (and other atheists’) visceral revulsion to theism is what he calls “the cosmic authority problem”—the rejection of any accountability to God. He continues, “Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.” Because many materialists recognize that acknowledging the evidence that points to purpose and design is tantamount to admitting to the reasonableness of theism, they would rather welcome what Nagel calls “Darwinist imperialism.”

Nagel’s candor is refreshing. One rarely reads a statement as blunt and honest as “I don’t want there to be a God.” He is admitting that his opinion is not neutral (an admission with which the Apostle Paul would heartily agree–see Romans 1). However, we don’t have a vote in the matter. God is, whether we believe in Him or not. He is the necessary Being, the One Who cannot not be. I find myself praying for this candid atheist.

This post can also be found at www.theologyforthechurch.com

Briefly Noted: William Lane Craig & The New Theists

Of all the things I expected to encounter this morning when I woke up, an appreciative essay about William Lane Craig published in The Chronicle Review was not one of them.[1] And yet, this is what I found when I read Nathan Schneider’s “The New Theist,” in which he argues that Craig is the leader of a brand of Christian philosophy with which the broader philosophical academy must now reckon.

Schneider begins by detailing a conversation that he (Schneider) recently had with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins had debated Craig and expressed bewilderment by Schneider’s interest in Craig, and dismissed him as “very unimpressive” (B7). This sort of dismissive attitude is the norm for Dawkins who tends to be an enthralled fan of his own performances. And yet, Schneider notes Sam Harris, who like Dawkins is a New Atheists, considers Craig “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many fellow atheists” (B7). Schneider considers Craig’s polarizing influence the prime reason for him to examine Craig’s message and intellectual posture.

Schneider reports that Craig is best known for holding debates with atheists on college campuses. Craig believes that “debate is the forum for sharing the gospel on college campuses,” (B7). He insists upon the same format for each debate. In his opening statement, Craig  “pummels the opponent with five or so concise arguments,” about, say, the origins of the universe or the resurrection of Jesus (B7). Following the opening statement, Craig responds point-by-point to his opponent’s rebuttals and states at the end of the debate how few of his arguments the opponent engaged, much less refuted. Schneider notes that debate audiences tend to view Craig as the winner (B7).

Craig’s success in these debates is rooted in a neuromuscular disease that causes atrophy in the extremities. Because of this disease, Craig was unable to play sports in high school and subsequently joined debate teams instead. Through these debate contexts, Craig was learning a skill set that he would one day employ in the service of Christ. Craig recounts how as a high school student he was soon confronted with the claims of Christ because of the witness of a fellow student in German class. Craig began to read the Bible. “For me,” Craig told Schneider, “it was a question of personal, existential commitment: Was I prepared to become this man’s follower?” (B7). His commitment to Christ grounded him and led him through his studies at Wheaton College. From Wheaton Craig went on to study philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham in England.

Schneider reports that Hick found Craig to be one of his top three students, but one whose “extreme theological conservatism” seemed to separate him from the modern world. “Hick, a pioneer of religious pluralism and non-exclusivist approaches to Christianity, was taken aback by this brilliant student’s single-minded ambition: to persuade more people everywhere to make professions of faith in Jesus Christ” (B8). Nonetheless, Craig’s dissertation was published as two books and has become influential in philosophical discussion. He continued this academic work with a doctorate in theology at the University of Munich. Thus by the mid-1980s Craig was equipped to work as a Christian apologist, philosopher, and biblical scholar (B8).

Craig views the live debates as only one component of his larger evangelistic strategy, a strategy that also includes a heavy emphasis on digital and social media. Craig remarks, “‘I have become convinced that we need to be more active in using the media . . . I need to work smarter, not harder, by leveraging these media opportunities” (B8). He seeks to leverage these media for the various aspects of his wide-ranging ministry. His website, Reasonable Faith, serves as an “on ramp” to the philosophical highway containing his books, essays, and videos. His books include Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (an introduction to Christian philosophy), Reasonable Faith (an apologetic for Christian faith), and On Guard (designed specifically for church groups).

Another component of Craig’s strategy is the mentoring and development of graduate students in philosophy. Along with Scott Rae and J.P. Moreland, Craig underpins the philosophy program at Biola University, a program that has placed students in PhD programs and faculty positions all over the world. Many atheistic philosophers describe Biola grads as very well prepared students. Schneider notes that “Laurence Bonjour, a philosopher at the University of Washington who has supervised the Ph.D. work of [Biola] program graduates, ‘Biola students, especially those interested in epistemology, are often very well trained” (B9). Yet the explicitly Christian confession and orientation of Biola can taint it in other philosophers’ perceptions. For example, “The Philosophical Gourmet Report,” which rates philosophy departments according to their faculty does not even mention Biola (B9), and Schneider speculates that this neglect might stem from Biola’s reputation as an evangelical Christian university.

Schneider points out though that “the Christian aspect” is everything for Craig and the Biola team (B10). Craig begins his seasonal classes with a reflection on the integration of Christian faith and scholarship. Again, this is part of the larger evangelistic calling Craig follows. For Craig the way to influence the culture is through influencing the university. This requires “scholarly apologetics” (B10). So Craig trains students (and families, as seen in his children’s book What is God like?) to be clear-thinking Christians who engage the increasingly atheistic culture. This is also a prophetic calling for Craig. In Reasonable Faith he argues, “Biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closet of Fundamentalism . . . Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying aside our best weapons of logic and evidence, thereby ensuring unawares modernism’s triumph over us” (cited on B10). Thus Craig aims to show how “a grown up faith in modern society requires grown up reasons” (B10).

According to Schneider, perhaps the best reason to take Craig and his brand of philosophy seriously is the results it is achieving. Craig has given many college students reason to believe in Christ and trust the biblical witness. Schneider notes, “In class, Craig is more than his students’ teacher; for many, this is the man who saved their faith” (B10). Schneider compares Craig to the ancient philosophers whose goal was not to engage in overly specialized debate about philosophical minutia. Instead, “philosophy was supposed to serve the polis, to educate and embolden its young, to raise up leaders. Whether one likes their preconceived conclusions or not, today it is evangelical Christians, with William Lane Craig in the lead, who are doing so better than just about anyone else” (B10). With the original telos of philosophy in mind, then, Craig and his tribe present a formidable challenge to the New Atheists.

[1] Nathan Schneider, “The New Theist” in The Chronicle Review (July 5, 2013), B6–10.

Briefly Noted: Mark Bauerlein’s Journey Away from Atheism

In his recent First Things article, Mark Bauerlein (professor of English at Emory University) describes his journey into atheism and then out of it into Catholicism.[1] His article ironically exposes the thin intellectual and existential ground on which his atheism was built. As I see it, his testimony makes the same point, by extension, for the pop-atheism that pervades the airwaves these days (e.g. Rich Dawkins).

Bauerlein “discovered” atheism in his teens. As he tells it, one day it occurred to him that he thought and felt nothing about God. “God is not there, I realized, and that knowledge seemed to have come entirely from outside of me.” (48) Bauerlein did not tell his closest family or friends about his discovery, so as a bright student interested in literature, Bauerlein turned to the classic thinkers–Aristotle, Dante, Rousseau, Freud, etc.–for comfort. He also found what he thought was a certain intellectual gravity. Their writing was certification of his “entry into an august company of honest minds, adding greatness to truth.” (48)

Yet an odd thing happened to Bauerlein as a result of his entry into this “august” company. These great thinkers, he states, “ . . . did not save me from the consequences of believing in nothing.” (49) While he went looking for intellectual enlightenment and comfort for his soul in atheistic thinkers, Bauerlein found that “I’d lost God, and whatever his replacement might be (helping others, making money) left me cold.” (49)

Bauerlein began moving away from atheism. “I lived in the shadow of that unshakeable verity until, for some reason, a few scattered influences unsettled it.” A series of important events and people worked together in the unsettling process. He married a Christian woman whose faith he found wholesome, watched a respected colleague convert to Catholicism, and finally struggled to answer when his four-year-old son asked him “Daddy, where is God?’ (to which he did not reply “nowhere”). So he writes, “as the experiences piled up, the atheists I had joined no longer sounded so disinterested and broad-minded.” This is because none of them knew how to admit to a lack of understanding (50). In other words, Bauerlein’s journey away from atheism was a journey away from narcissism and nihilism.

As he journeyed away from atheism, Bauerlein began a journey toward faith in Christ. In late 2010, as he began reading about Christianity, he realized that he had a desire for God. “When I read ‘The desire for God is written in the human heart,’ I wanted more.” (51) As Bauerlein read he discovered that faith in God allows something atheism doesn’t, “it takes seriously the other side.” (51) He now found the other side empty. Nihilism was nothing. God was real. Before, he had simply failed to (try to) perceive, failed to (try to) understand him. The article concludes with what he now understands what he did not understand as a teenager: “God will not despise a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17) when that heart rests in God.

[1] Mark Bauerlein, “My Failed Atheism,” in First Things (May 2012): 47–51.

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