Justifying Faithlessness; or, Partie Deux

This is a continuation of my discussion of ex-pastor Ryan Bell's "A Year Without God." You can read my the first part of this response here.  

You can pull up the article to which I am referring here. 

 

Last week we examined the Introductory portion of ex-pastor Ryan Bell's year-end recap of his year without God. I have yet to decide whether I want to dedicate three weeks to this guy, so I'm going to attempt to wrap it up here. I'm not sure it can be done. (editor's note: you've got another week of this, should you care to read it. You always have the option to leave it alone!)

What you will notice here that is different from last week is that I'm going to be taking on his arguments in total on some of these subjects, not necessarily the nuances (or lack thereof) of his high school rhetoric. So you will see bigger portions of blocked quotations; I do not want to extract his sentences from their context, for I want to allow him to be as thorough as he chose to be in writing his article. 

On Scientific Foundations

While science [emphasis his] has yet to answer every question about our existence and our place in the universe, it has gone a remarkable way toward that end. I expect there will always be mysteries waiting to be investigated, but the scientific method has served us well. Coming as I have from a Christian tradition that flatly refuses to acknowledge the discoveries of science, my faith has limited my understanding of the world and my pursuit of truth. I cannot live in this way any longer. I feel much more confident leaving questions of our physical world and the cosmos to science. I understand that some Christians can reconcile their faith with the scientific account of our origins, but I see no reason for this approach at this time.

 

I am a bit of a science junkie. I'm not very good at doing science, but reading about it is one of the great little joys of my life. I recently followed with fervor the ESA Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, along with the probe Philea. I follow them both on Twitter, for crying out loud. I was in awe of the photographs of the Cosmic Microwave Background that premiered in 2013. I wholeheartedly endorse Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica as one of the most important written works ever recorded in human history (however little I understand its intricacies). I will go on the record and state that if I could've been born with a different set of brains, I'd have loved to be on the team assembling the LHC in CERN (for an astounding documentary on this, check out Particle Fever, now streaming on Netflix).

My first observation is that I believe it to be wholly fallacious to say that the Christian tradition "flatly refuses to acknowledge the discoveries of science." The very practice of scientific inquiry was begun by people wishing to understand the physical world that they believe God had created. They wanted to disassemble the watch that He assembled so that they might try to understand the mind that wound the gears. Perhaps Ryan's Christian friends or relatives objected to sciencey stuff (we'll come to that), but surely this Ryan fellow is smart enough to distinguish the beliefs of a few from the doctrine of the whole. 

Further, I do not believe that Ryan actually believes that the Christian tradition he came from, as he puts it, "flatly refuses to acknowledge the discoveries of science." I would wager, were I a betting man, that the people he has in mind were fine making use of the internal combustion engine, the microchip, and portable music amplification devices. To say that "the discoveries of science" were what they shunned is mere hyperbole; it is lazy justification; it is boring writing. 

I am no imbecile, however. I know what it is he's talking about, which is why I began this section how I did--with talk of spacey, originey things. It brings me to my second observation: he wants science to answer "every question about our existence and our place in the universe." This poses some massive problems.

First, science cannot answer every question about our existence and our place in the universe. It can answer a great number of them, but all of the questions it can answer are secondary. It does fine with How? and When? and even (though pretty much just conjecturally) Where?, but it comes miserably short of answering Why? and What Now? It can do What? but not So What? I'll tell you why. 

The worldview that Ryan is advocating is something akin to a modern Empiricism or Materialism (for ease's sake and for the sake of this post, I'll herein use them interchangeably): dong away with all that cannot be measured or counted or tested in a lab. Under this framework, Ryan's worldview crumbles. If he's thinking that Science should (or even could) answer "every question about our existence," then he's delivering a faith statement: "We haven't seen this yet, nor have we seen any evidence of its possibility, but we believe that what we're doing will produce the results we're looking for the answers to." That is an issue of faith: faith in the reliablity of the scientific process, faith in the perfection of our formulas that explain gravity and homeostasis and the laws of physics, faith in the faithful, unbiased interpretation of cold, hard facts. 

And faith is not a thing that Empiricists are supposed to have--faith in some unknown, unseeable outcome. 

Second, science should not answer every question about our existence. Existence is not an issue of science. It is, at its most scientific, an issue of Philosophy and, at its most plausible, an issue of metaphysics. There are extremely solid arguments for existence outside of a theistic point of view, but they do not come, as Ryan says, from Science, and are far more speculative than an empiricist should ever be comfortable accepting. 

 

I just have one final thought on this section, and it pertains to his final sentence. He says that some Christians can reconcile their faith with the findings of Science; I would amend that. Christians needn't reconcile their faith to science at all. Issues of faith: "Does God exist?" "Does God speak to me?" "Can I know Him?" Issues that have nothing to do with faith: "How far away are those stars?" "What is the constant that keeps planets in motion?" "How old is the universe?" 

Questions of measurable things--age, distance, force, number--have no bearing on faith, whatsoever. The real questions come when we've moved past the material: Why are we here? What do we do now? These are questions that science has no place attempting to answer unless it's willing to overstep its material bounds. 

 

 

While biological evolution accounts for our present physical existence, the history [emphasis his] of human social evolution is a much better way of understanding religion. The multitude of religious and spiritual beliefs that have occupied the minds of human beings through the millennia and the way those ideas have changed over time convinces me that God has not created humanity. Humanity has created God. Ludwig Feuerbach proposed, correctly I think, that God is the projection of humanities [sic] best, and sometimes worst, impulses. God is human nature writ large. We can see that clearly when considering the Greek and Roman gods. Why would it not be true of all other gods, as well? Religion has served a vital evolutionary purpose, uniting people around the common good. Those days, however, are waning, as we discover better ways of coping with the challenges facing our planet.

 

Easy, killer; biological evolution does an alright job at accounting for our physical existence. Let's not overshoot it. I'm not entirely sure why we're talking about biological evolution, though, unless it's because of Ryan's apparent insatiable need to talk about things he thinks all Christians patently reject. I half expect him to blurt out that he's enjoying a 'nice, cold brew' with his 'bros' now that he's out of the watchful rod of his cloud-daddy in the sky. Biological evolution has a lot of proponents that work very, very well--part of the reason that it's been accepted so widely, though it doesn't require any less faith than faith in a Creator--more, in fact. It would work so well were it not for an all-but-lack of those blasted transitional forms. 

Well, that and the uniformity of genetic code (if creation were not intelligently designed, we shouldn't have so many similarities in our DNA to things that are... well, quite different from us. Bananas, for example). And that pesky law of biogenesis (life begat from life, etc). And the annoying fact that we can't reproduce it--we can't even alter a basic form (Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading evolutionist and professor at the University of Pittsburg, said, "...it was and still is the case that, with the exception of Dobzhansky's claim about a new species of fruit fly, the formation of a new species, by any mechanism, has never been observed"). 

 Moving on.

"The multitude of religious and spiritual beliefs... and the way those ideas have changed...convinces me that God has not created humanity; humanity has created God." 

I'll flip it on him: the multitude of scientific and rational beliefs throughout human history and the ways those beliefs have changed over time convince me that science has not created humanity; humanity has created science. 

Aristotle believed we only had five senses and that life could spontaneously generate (which was perpetuated all the way to the 1700s until that darned meat couldn't produce maggots in a sealed container). Newton concluded that light was made up of particles. Combustible substances were thought to contain a fire-element called Phlogiston. Einstein argued that the universe was static--that it is finite, fixed, and not, indeed, expanding unbelievably rapidly. He later dismissed it as the biggest blunder of his career.  

My point is that you cannot take the differences in the way that people see and interact with God as disproof of His existence any more than we can take the cacophony of incorrect theories about the universe as proof against the existence of the universe. 

Concerning this man-creating-God business, man has created many gods, this is true: the god that is to make you wealthy if you donate to his church, the god that we pray to to win football games, the god that we hope will spontaneously generate information in our heads for tests we forgot to study for, the god we tell, "cure this cancer or I'll not believe that you exist." However, the likelihood that the Jewish God and the promised Jewish Messiah, Jesus, are made up is quite improbable. A God that says, "no, you don't have to do things to be in My graces, You must just believe My Word." A God that says, "No, I won't give you everything you want. But make your wants my wants and you'll have everything you want." A God that says, "Let me come down and sacrifice Myself for you." 

Religion is a human institution, yes, but it is a human institution attempting to reconcile very non-human things to human understanding. Some have gotten it very wrong, yes, but that does not discount the endeavor of religion as a whole. 

Side note, I'm not even going to get into the fact that Ryan actually, literally, said, "We can see that clearly when considering the Greek and Roman gods. Why would it not be true of all other gods, as well?" I just... nope. That is not a correlary. You cannot say that what is true of Romans and Greeks is true for all people. That would very will violate the very nature of his article.

 

The multiplicity of religions [emphasis his] is also an argument against theism. With all the competing claims, which God is the right one? My Christianity was the product of being born in the United States during the 20th century. If I had been born in Saudi Arabia I would no doubt be a Muslim. If I were born in the Indian subcontinent I would be a Hindu, or perhaps a Sikh. If I were born in Thailand, I would undoubtedly be a Buddhist. The more I engaged in interfaith dialogue the more I realized that we can’t all be right. Furthermore, all paths can’t possibly lead the same place, even if the original impulse of religion, connection with the divine, is the same. The paths are in some cases wildly divergent.

In which I respond to this with sarcasm and misattributed quotes, in the name of proving a rhetorical point:

"All of these people--billions of them across the entire span of human consciousness--all experience this God-thing and try to explain it. Since there are so many people experiencing this, it must be fake." -Ryan Bell

"I was born in the United States in the 20th century, which explains why I was a Christian, because all people born in the United States in the 20th century are Christians. America is actually the birthplace of Christianity." -Ryan Bell

"They can't all be right, so they're all wrong. It's just like people arguing about which football team is best: we all follow different paths, but there can't be one right one; therefore, football doesn't exist." -Ryan Bell

"All religions are so different that they couldn't possibly be made of people looking at the same thing, some perhaps more incorrectly than others. I mean, no two religions teach things like 'turn the other cheek' or of a realm outside of empirical reality or that only one God exists or that what we do in temporal life has eternal ramifications or that humans have souls." -Ryan Bell

 

Finally, for me the most convincing explanation for the persistence of religion is from the field of psychology [emphasis his]. We fear nothing more than our own mortality. But what if we could live forever? We have a metaphorical sense of living on in the lives of our children and cultural institutions to which we contribute. But what if we could actually live forever? What if the reward for a life well lived is eternal life in paradise? Such a reward could be used to keep the masses in line and consolidate power in the hands of those that hold the secrets to immortality. Because we fear death we create stories about how we will not really die. The Biblcal [sic] book of Genesis is aobut [sic][I really did just copy and paste these quotes, I swear.] how we lost our innate immortality and the remainder of the writings that make up the Bible are about our search to regain what we lost. Revelation ends with the faithful being reunited in a perfect world without end.

Psh, speak for yourself. Small talk is infinitely more terrifying than my own mortality. 

But I digress. 

 If we were afraid of dying and created religion to cope with it, wouldn't we have invented a philosophy of an endless cycle of rebirth? Perhaps a structure to control a large group of people based on it? (I'm looking at you, caste system)

Secondly, it is absolutely ludicrous to assert that Christianity downplays our present existence. Christianity pays unbelievable attention to living every moment to its absolute fullest, but for a reason that's even bigger than ourselves: "Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17). Suddenly the things we do and the stuff we say has been given additional weight because we no longer represent only ourselves, but an entire ideal, an entire system, an entire realm that will not die, ever.

If we were inventing religion because we were afraid of death, the last thing that we would do is invent a religion that says, "Okay, you only get one shot at this and you had better get it right, beause what you do in life echoes forever and there are no take-backs." Death is not the end, sure, but death is the finish line. Does a finish line discredit the race? Does it hinder the runner? Of course not. It motivates him to run even harder. 

Third, Mr. Bell has misinterpreted what Christianity teaches about eternity. It is not a life well lived that merits you eternity in "paradise" (which is a whole discussion for an entirely different day), it is a life lived for the thing which endures past death, for the Person who has conquered it. Spoiler alert: nobody is going to live a good life. We can't do it, because we're not good. What is emphasized instead is living a life well-served. 

I believe that Ryan has bought into the sunday school idea of heaven and hell: that they are places with either streets of gold or red-hot coals, where you are either massaged or tortured forever. Sure, things like these are said about heaven or hell to describe them, but this is due primarily to the limitation of the human mind to understand forever. Think of it this way: when you die, you're going to continue serving whatever master you've served in life, and be in perfect unity with that master.

Are you serving your Lord who grants you access to the Father? Have you thrown off the old self and put on Christ, instead? Then you're going to be able to enjoy your master forever in His presence. Or are you serving self? The desire for more? Do you exist solely the betterment of humanity, without the hope of a Savior? Then you'll continue serving them in death: you'll be forever chasing the water to quench your thirst, the light to escape the darkness, the humanity that has long since abandoned you to the icy clutches of the grave. 

This is, of course, not a picture of eternity, merely a way of thinking about it. If God truly is who He says He is, then He is a God who hates sin to the extent that He slaughtered His Son and threw Him into the depths of hell to extinguish it. Either you accept that sacrifice as payment for your wrongdoing or you serve the time yourself; the difference is that we, merely humans (homo, ece homo!), cannot possibly escape the pit that we have dug for ourselves. God has no choice but to incinerate it. 

I didn't mean to get into a discussion of hell and heaven here, but I think that it may have been slightly warranted. Before you jump to the comments and talk about my faulty Theology, remember that this is not a Scriptural exegesis of the afterlife, I was simply attempting to explain that I do not believe that Mr. Bell's criticism of it was fair, accurate, or just. CS Lewis says some really amazing things far better than I could on this subject in The Great Divorce if you'd like to read about it. 

 

Much more could be said about each of these subjects. I have also said nothing about morality and the problem of evil. Volumes have been written about each of these subjects, but in this short space, these are a few of the reasons I find God to be an entirely human creation.

 

I would imagine that if I were to walk up to an elementary school with a submachine gun and fire off magazines full of tracer rounds for no reason other than that I felt like killing some children today, I don't know that there would be many people, religious or vehemently not so, who would jump to my defense. Morality isn't quite as subjective as its most harsh critics would have you believe. So here I will paraphrase Ravi Zacherias: In order to have morality, you must have a moral law. In order to have a moral law, you need a standard of morality--some sort of moral law giver. If there is no moral law giver, there is no standard for morality, and thus no morality at all; thus, our conversation about good and evil is pointless because neither exists. 

You don't have to be a Christian to believe in morality, but to explain it without some conception of some separate standard requires some tricky reasoning, though Nietzsche does about the best job of it by walking through history through the lens of the will to power. On this subject, for the sake of brevity, I'll say either that I'll talk about this another day or will send you to a short paper I wrote on Nietzsche located in the "papers" section of this site, but suffice it to say here that the critics of Nietzsche's Geneology of Morals are many and multi-denominational. It might show how modern conceptions of "good" and "bad" have arisen, but much like evolution itself, it does a pretty bad job at what spawned it all or even why we talk so much about it in the first place. 

Long story short, Ryan drops "the problem of evil" like it's the nail in God's proverbial coffin: like the problem of dark is an argument against light bulbs or the problem of cold is an argument against space heaters. 

 

 

It looks like I'm going to have to continue this next time. I didn't realize how much I had to say about all of this... So, next week, join me in the finale, as we examine what Ryan declares that he is and we see how he's coping with a life after God. 

For now, I'll leave you here with some questions: Do you think that Ryan's departure from faith was a departure from faith at all? Did he have it in the first place? If so, what was his faith in? Also, do you believe that his reasoning stands up to scrutiny? It might. I may be just blasting nothingness out into the blogosphere (man, I hate that word), and if so that is fine with me. I'm just here to ask questions. 

 

Click Here for part 3