Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

God, Atheism, and the Politics of Certitude

"I do not think there is a demonstrative proof of Christianity.... As to why God doesn't make it demonstratively clear; are we sure that He is even interested in the kind of Theism which would be a compelled logical assent to a conclusive argument?" -- C.S. Lewis

My wife recently had her first head-on collision with an atheist. While at a social event associated with her work, she met an interesting man whom we will call “Chuck”. While talking to Chuck, the conversation coincidentally turned to religion. Chuck, it turns out, is a former Catholic who is now very proud of his atheism. Recognizing my wife to be a theist, his tone instantly became accusatory: “How do you know that God exists?” he demanded. Only complete certainty would satisfy Chuck.

This is now the second time I have seen an atheist make this demand: that for the theist to be justified in their belief in God, absolute certitude is required; or, to borrow a phrase from American jurisprudence, the theist must be convinced in their belief beyond a shadow of a doubt. The atheist will accept nothing short of this absolute certitude. This demand might seem reasonable at first – after all, should not a person experience some degree of certitude before committing to such an important, life-altering belief system? However, if we consider further their demand becomes less reasonable.

First, we should consider what it means to know something. There is an entire branch of philosophy built around the theory of knowledge called epistemology (from Greek επιστημη “knowledge” + λογος). The net sum of epistemology is that it is not quite so easy to know something as you would initially believe. The seventeenth century philosopher Descartes pulled the pin out of everyone’s theory of knowledge when he set the Evil Genius loose on the world. Descartes argued that it is at least possible that each one of us is actually being actively deceived by the Evil Genius into accepting everything that we presume to know about the world, our lives, etc. How do you know with absolute certainty that you are not being deceived by Descartes’ Evil Genius right now, as you sit and read this blog? Or, to use a modern equivalent, how do you know that you are not actually the captive of nefarious machines, plugged into a Matrix to be kept alive so they can harvest your body heat for energy?  The truth is you cannot know, if knowing means absolute certitude as the atheist demands it. Beyond being certain of our present existence, the waters become very murky.

But I do not want to take us there today. I simply said all that to say the atheist is not quite on the solid ground that he presumes to stand on. Instead, he is merely playing a political game. His game is to make the Christian appear inferior to himself because the Christian presumably does not have knowledge on his side. But if absolute certitude is our standard for knowledge, enter Descartes’ Evil Genius and we all - even the atheist - become uncertain of a great many things. This should not be problematic for the Christian. Faith and belief in God are key cogs of the Christian faith; knowledge of God - in the absolute certitude sense, at least - is not. Jesus said that He is “the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” Paul wrote that the Christian has been saved “by grace through faith.” Once a person passes into absolute certitude regarding any given issue, belief and faith cease to exist. For example, if I am possess absolute certitude that upon buying a lottery ticket I will win $1 million – that is, that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will win – in no meaningful way can I be said to need faith that I will win.

All this talk of faith and belief will undoubtedly make people like Chuck scour. Atheists almost invariably disdain such talk. But it is hypocritical for them to do so. The atheist uses faith and belief to make life-altering decisions every day. For example, no atheist can know with absolute certitude that at any traffic light the speeding intersecting traffic will yield to their green light – cars run red lights all the time; and yet, upon seeing their green, the atheist proceeds into the intersection with faith that the other cars will yield. Upon learning that his heart is failing, no atheist can know with absolute certitude that a transplant will save them; and yet they proceed with the operation anyway, believing (or hoping?) that it will. The decision on the part of the informed Christian to believe and have faith in God does not seem significantly different.

Having said all that, it would seem as well that we turn the tables on the atheist and ask, “How do you know that God does not exist?” If to know requires absolute certitude – the kind that they are demanding of the theist - any honest atheist would have to admit that he cannot know; unfortunately, many will not give that answer. Most would likely provide some shoddy philosophical argument constructed around evolutionary theory; however, this argument is a house of cards that easily crumbles. With regards to evolution, if all the atheist hopes for could be proven true, the only accomplishment is to eliminate a literal interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis; it remains to be seen why a figurative interpretation would not remain tenable. Evolution in the Darwinian sense could simply be God’s generative process for creating life on Earth.

The more informed atheist might provide a philosophical argument with more merit constructed around different premises; the existence of evil, for example. But even these arguments cannot come anywhere near establishing the kind of absolute certitude that the atheist has required. Furthermore, similar arguments exist on the side of the theist. In reality both sides are on a level playing field. The guise of absolute certitude must be cast off, and we are left to evaluate the arguments and evidence for and against God on equal footing. And that, I believe, is how God intended it.

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