Faith, Evidence, & Proof: John Lennox Part 3 – 10/1/2016
A snarky atheist demands, “You say I should believe in God? Prove it!” But what does he mean by ‘proof’? Are we talking about a mathematical version of proof, whereby well-established axioms are invoked, using watertight logic to deduce an unassailable conclusion? You may vaguely recall such proofs from high school geometry; for example, that in a right triangle, the sum of the squares of the lengths of the short sides must equal the square of the hypotenuse.
In his book Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target, John Lennox observes that such rigorous standards of proof are not available in any other academic or practical discipline, including physics, chemistry, and biology. In the hard sciences there are always error bars, always uncertainties in calibration and measurement, always judgment calls in interpreting data. Even in mathematics you must presuppose rational thought and assume that when a fair number of experienced mathematicians actually agree on a ‘proof’, such a social consensus makes it official . . . official enough to warrant publication, at least.
The kind of ‘proof’ that real people live by, including scientists, lawyers, seamstresses, and tennis players, can be termed ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt.’ On a clay court, Novak Djokovic drills his backhand past Rafael Nadal, the ball just barely clipping the line. It’s close, though, and the linesman calls it out. Djokovic insists that the umpire – an officially ‘reasonable man’ – get off his perch and inspect the mark . . . which clearly intersects the line. Case closed. Can the margin be so small that a mistake is made? Yes, but not often. Millions of dollars and international fame are determined by such ‘reasonable proofs,’ however.
A jury of 12 convicts an accused murderer, after reviewing evidence of his fingerprints on the murder weapon, the gun validated by forensic analysis of the bullets lodged in the victim’s body. This, coupled with multiple witnesses testifying to ample motive and opportunity, closes the case. Does anyone ‘know for sure’ that the accused is guilty? No, but such life and death decisions are routinely made on a ‘reasonable doubt’ basis. We exercise ‘faith’ in the criminal justice system because it generally works, at least when involved parties are, in ‘good faith,’ working to find truth.
Therefore, a ‘reasonable faith’ is based on experience, along with reason and integrity. Verdicts can be rendered in good confidence, despite lying perpetrators and deceitful defense lawyers. At the more mundane level, we have ‘faith’ to cross a street, given what our eyes see and our historical experience with traffic when the light turns green and the ‘WALK’ sign lights up.
Do I believe that my wife loves me? Do I have faith in my wife? After all these years, I have evidential and reasonable cause to trust her, to trust her fidelity, to trust that she will take care of me when I’m sick, to trust her to resist going on a wild shopping spree when I’m not looking . . . etc.
We live moment by moment, making choices both consequential and in-, on the basis of limited, yet sufficient information, using experience and reason to make decisions great and small. Deciding and acting upon a belief that God exists, that very God revealed in the Bible, and whether we are accountable to Him, is a matter built on such foundations.
Is it difficult to determine whether a Creator God exists? Not at all, given the awesome evidences of design from the macroscopic (galactic structures, planetary orbits, a habitable Earth) to the microscopic (DNA, cell structure, meiosis) to the submicroscopic (the ‘fitness’ of the elementary particles, carbon compounds, the water molecule). Is such a Creator brilliant and intentional? Yes, given the information content of life, from microbes to ecosystems. Is God moral? Certainly, given the universality of man’s conscience. So which ‘religion’? That’s easy, too, given history, fulfilled prophecy, and the unique conscience affirming qualities of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that salvation for such vile sinners as you and me can only be offered by a holy, yet loving God, and that salvation must logically be mediated through God incarnate, the sinless Lamb of God. Simple stuff, all of it. You simply have to care enough to think it through, and be humble enough to get in touch with the reality of who you are in relation to God.
Lennox comments on an atheistic double standard: they object to any attempt to associate their worldview with death-dealing despots such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Yet they eagerly lump Bible-believing Christians with the worst of the medieval Inquisitors and even with jihadist Islam. Richard Dawkins, for example, speaking of Islam: “If you don’t take it seriously and accord it a proper respect you are physically threatened on a scale that no other religion has aspired to since the Middle Ages.” He also warns about religion in general: “Even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”
The irony, as I see it, is that all false religions / worldviews, including atheism and Islam, can be lumped together as part of the Adversary’s team. Stalin and Mao were not aberrant atheists; they simply had the power to work out the natural consequences of man-in-the-place-of-God, with the despotic power, void of any God-given morality, to fashion society via whim and fiat. A corrupted man will employ horrific policies without pause . . . after all, what is man to an atheist but a moving clump of molecules, mere meat for the grinder. Yet Stalin and Mao were doubly out of touch with reality. Not only did they defy and deny God, but they were non-innocent dupes of Satan’s realm, multiplying death to multitudes of God’s image-bearers and persecuting Bible believers with evil tenacity.
Islam and historic Roman Catholicism (which has persecuted true Christians throughout the ages) represent different divisions within the Devil’s army, offering false hopes of salvation, often at the point of a sword, and actively warring against propagation of the Gospel. In short, these guys and the atheists are all on the same team, but don’t know it!
Atheist Sam Harris breaks ranks with compatriots like Dawkins, observing that “very few of us lie awake at night worrying about the Amish . . . (who) are not likely to hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings.” Harris objects to phony arguments of equivalence, whereby Christian ‘extremism’ is bundled together with Islamic violence. He suggests a metaphor of his perspective, as if surveying “a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment,” and that too much focus on the evils of theism “is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.” Lennox notes that Harris “myopically fails to take into account the possibility that his atheism might just be part of that landscape.”
Harris goes so far as to recommend: “We should not call ourselves ‘atheists.’ We should not call ourselves ‘secularists.’ We should not call ourselves ‘humanists,’ or ‘secular humanists,’ or ‘rationalists,’ or ‘freethinkers,’ or ‘brights.’ We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar – for the rest of our lives. And while there we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.”
Lennox calls this “naivete.” There is no “neutral default” worldview. You simply cannot call out bad ideas without identifying good ideas. You have to stand on some ground in order to have a foundation on which to build your own philosophical castle . . . and shoot your witty cannonballs at your adversaries.
Besides, in a mechanistic, atoms-are-everything worldview, what’s the difference between a bad and a good idea? Why is it ‘good’ to choose good ideas over bad ideas? What’s an idea, anyway? An idea isn’t made out of quarks and electrons. Atheism simply cannot be a default position, since atomic physics does not explain rational thought. Amazingly, Harris ‘thinks’ his atheism has nothing to fear from reason, but reason destroys materialism.
Lennox reports on research results in opposition to Dawkins’ claims that religion causes more stress through guilt than it relieves. Sloan Wilson summarizes some findings: “On average, religious believers are more pro-social than non-believers; feel better about themselves; use their time more constructively; and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited.”
Duh. Such trends apply even for false religions; yet Roman Catholics, Mormons, and lost church-goers within Protestantism do believe they are accountable to God, and tend to recognize the value of their God-given conscience.
Would Dawkins do away with guilt? Back we go to Stalin, Mao, and the wacky Kim family despots of North Korea. Less notably, studies have shown that prisons are filled with individuals of high self-esteem, who have seared their consciences, acted out accordingly, and must be separated from those they would harm. That’s what Hell is all about, of course.
Lennox, quite rightly, scoffs at the atheist’s claim that belief in God is harmful for the human race from an evolutionary point of view. It’s ironic, but well known, that Christians (and Muslims and Catholics, among others) have more children than do atheists. It’s well-documented within Christendom that belief in God correlates well with mental and physicial health, with happiness, hope and optimism, with purpose and meaning in life, with lower rates of depression and suicide, with less substance abuse, and with greater marital stability and satisfaction. Modern atheist celebrity authors seem completely unaware of the huge volume of research on these matters.
As a counterpoint, though, atheist columnist Matthew Parris wrote that he is convinced that Africa needs God, that missionaries and not aid money are the solution to Africa’s biggest problems. For example: “Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” I find this especially ironic in that the modern trend in evangelical mission work is overwhelmingly balanced on the side of money, food, infrastructure, and other physical helps. And not just in Africa, but in America, too. Every sizable evangelical church I know of in the Phoenix valley is focused on physical help to the bottom tenth of a percent of the economic bell curve. The Gospel is woefully neglected, even for the destitute few who are the targets of the social gospel. Furthermore, the other 99.9% are ignored, except to hope that they show up at the weekly church show, and pay up to get the cheeseburgers bagged up for the homeless outreach.
How about the practical harm of atheism? Lennox: “Just imagine a world with no Gulag, no Cultural Revolution, no Killing Fields, no removal of children from their parents because the parents were teaching them about their beliefs . . .” In a debate with Lennox, Dawkins asserted that there was no link between atheism and such atrocities. Dawkins suggests that both atheists and Christians don’t believe in Zeus or Wotan, and such unbelief doesn’t provoke harm to others, so how can unbelief in the Christian’s God cause trouble? The reality is – to an honest man – that denial of the existence of God and a consequent affirmation in materialistic philosophy has massive consequences, in morality, in conscience, in acts perpetrated by despots who believe in no accountability. Lennox pointed out to Dawkins during the debate that he has not bothered to write a 400-page book promoting a-Wotanism or a-Zeusism. How come?
In short he and his ilk are anti-theists. They believe that all of life, including mind and morality, arise naturally from stuff – particles. If we are formed from supernova star dust by chemical chance, then rules are the arbitrary products of homo sapien brain chemistry. Those embracing this view who happen to have power over others are truly dangerous.
Lennox has interviewed Russian intellectuals whose message to him is something like this: “We thought we could get rid of God and retain a value for human beings. We were wrong. We destroyed both God and man.” His Polish friends are more blunt: “Dawkins has lost contact with the realities of twentieth-century history. Let him come here and talk to us, if he is really opening to listening to evidence of the link between atheism and atrocity.”
Adolf Hitler and his cronies were into occult practices, but Hitler himself was very much an atheist in that he thought of ‘God’ as the rule of natural law throughout the universe. Hitler expected Christianity to crumble under the advance of science. Sound familiar? Nothing has changed. Hitler: “When understanding of the universe has become widespread . . . then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.” Hitler equated Christianity to smallpox. One of the New Atheists also sees Christianity as a “virus of the mind, similar to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”
As David Berlinski has written, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and the NKVD and the Gestapo did NOT believe that God was watching. They were their own gods, accountable to no one above. “That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.” Dostoyevski penned, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Lennox once talked to a 13-year-old girl in what was then East Germany, incredibly bright, who had just been told she could have no more education because she would not swear public allegiance to the atheistic state. Such ‘intellectual murder’ persists in anti-Christian countries today, including America in that an ‘outed’ Biblical creationist will not be allowed to earn a PhD in biology, geology, or astronomy in most secular universities.
The God vs. no-God question can be recast into the issue of is vs. ought. Knowledge is about what is and values are about what ought to be. In atheism there simply is no ought. The same goes for pantheism. Lennox: “For Gaia, human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.” I recently shared the Gospel with a college student, a physics major, who leaned toward a pantheistic worldview. Because he was refreshingly honest and open to points of view other than his own, he quickly yielded the point that if ‘God’ is simply the sum of everything, then he might as well be an atheist.
Moral judgments require personal agency. A pantheistic scheme of karma, implemented through reincarnation, cannot be accomplished through ‘laws of the universe’ analogous to gravitation or electromagnetics. Moral judgments require a personal God. The laws of electromagnetics certainly constrain the operation of a cell phone’s microprocessor, transmitter, and receiver. But it takes an agent, an engineer, to design the cell phone, which is simply constrained in its operation by ‘the rules’ of Maxwell’s equations.
Evolutionary biologist and historian William B. Provine opines, “No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.”
Yet no man or woman can live that way, including a guy like Provine, who conducts research and writes articles and books as if there is a point, as if it matters whether anyone is listening to him. Indeed, ‘the universe’ has written no moral laws, but the Creator of the universe has, which is the only way we, as personal agents, can know right from wrong, by the Creator’s word which tellingly resonates with our God-given conscience. Everyone knows right from wrong, from the tenured academic to the inner city gang-banger. In my experience in 121 encounters, all sinners wallow in the same moral muck. (I include myself.)
Evolutionists like Michael Ruse insist that our “belief in morality . . . our ethics . . . is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate . . . Evolution has filled us full of thoughts about right and wrong, about the need to help our fellows and so forth.” Well then, as Lennox suggests, let’s apply their own logic to themselves and conclude that their theories are a genetically induced illusion. The evolutionary position, once again, admits that even morality is just brain chemistry, that there can be no right or wrong in their world. It just “is.” Since most of humanity would never fall for such garbage, then why fall for evolution at all, whose consequence is utter meaninglessness? By the way, even atheists use the court system when harmed or offended, and would be incensed if the criminal who harmed them got off with the argument, “My genes made me do it.”
Yet Dawkins (outside the courtroom) teaches: “The universe we observe is . . . blind, pitiless, indifferent. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” A judge who believes this couldn’t possibly hold a rapist or a murderer accountable. Unless he admits that his ‘judgment’ is just him dancing to his own DNA. Besides, how can Dawkins even be aware of the concept of ‘pitiless’ or ‘indifference,’ unless he has seen pity and care. Only man – a part of the universe – has the capacity to pity and care. How did the universe do that? Is pity an actual thing?
Yes, pity is a real thing, along with care and love and hope and meaning and morality. Evolutionary philosophy, however, is easily tied to the moral decay of the West, including rampant crime, substance abuse, delinquency, broken families, self-worship, and all manner of perverse immorality. No God, no morals.
A telling example of the atheist’s penchant for ridicule instead of reason is Dawkins’ claim that the “Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin. What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life.” Little preoccupation? Lennox points out that sin “is the root cause of tyrannies, wars, genocide, murder, exploitation, financial crises, injustice; of international, societal, and family breakdown; of incalculable unhappiness due to lying, cheating, slander, bullying, stealing, domestic violence, and every form of crime, and so on and on and on and on and on and on and on.” Truly, the wages of sin is death. Apparently, the atheistic game plan is to destroy the concept of sin, abolishing any difference between good and evil . . . but, of course, that’s just what materialism does naturally. Admission that sin exists leads too quickly to God. Anything, even anarchy, is better than that!
Consistently inconsistent is Dawkins’ love of moralizing(!) to attack Christianity. In his view, the substitutionary atonement is evil: “. . . executing an innocent to pay for the sins of the guilty.” He calls it “barking mad.” His preferred theology if God were to exist? “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment?”
So why not do away with parking fines? Just ask the judge for forgiveness. What about rape and murder? “Sorry, judge. Can I go now?” Lennox considers the case of a woman who has discovered her husband’s infidelity. She’s hurt, her domestic world shattered. Forgiveness involves two distinct processes. First, she must be able to ‘let it go’ so she can move forward constructively. Second, to forgive her husband would be conditional on his repentance. Just ‘letting it go’ would be equivalent to ‘it doesn’t matter,’ effectively condoning the sin.
Lennox cites the case of Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness for the soldiers who crucified him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The soldiers believed they were doing their duty. They didn’t understand what was really going on. But to forgive an unrepentant man who knows exactly what he’s doing and is determined to stay right on the same path would be condoning, and condoning sin is sin itself. Lennox: “If my sin doesn’t matter, then I don’t matter in the end. If your child is murdered and the law does not bother to arrest, try, and sentence the perpetrator, the law is saying, in effect, that your child doesn’t matter. The courts cannot ‘just let it go.’ Such an attitude would spell the end of all morality and hope of justice.”
The Muslims I have shared the Gospel with believe that Allah abritrarily chooses to forgive some sinners and some sins, while bringing condemnation on others. Calvinists hold an equivalent position, claiming that God arbitrarily visits irresistible grace on some, but unconditional damnation on the vast majority, with no recourse. All works-based religions share a common blasphemous defect, that God will cancel or overlook or forgive crimes if a man has performed enough righteousness or rituals. I regularly explain to Mormons that their doctrine of man-becoming-god via performance is self-righteousness, and self-righteousness condemns, as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees.
It’s my sins and your sins that bring unhappiness. It’s your and my selfishness that causes conflict. The world is in trouble because of you and me. Our only hope is mercy, but a world with nothing but mercy at the expense of justice violates my conscience and your conscience. Yearning for justice when we see evil in the world is evidence that we are made in the image of God, God who is merciful and just simultaneously, who loves while being perfectly holy. Mercy and justice meet together at the Cross. The fine must be paid by the Innocent Blood. Only the perfect Son of God is qualified. I can’t pay for you and you can’t pay for me.
The condition on mercy? A humble, repentant heart, a recognition of the evil of your sins in the reality of this world, this universe. A turn from sin toward righteousness and the Author of righteousness, trusting in Him for forgiveness and Life, a Life eternal.
Any honest man, even an atheist, will understand such realities. Mind, heart, and conscience are what make the man, not DNA and metabolism. If you find an atheist to talk to, reach toward his heart. You may need to earn the hearing by speaking to issues of the mind (apologetics) for a minute or two. That’s all it takes. (See my essay on How to Witness to an Atheist, including my “What am I thinking?” tract.)
Don’t know where to find a friendly atheist? Just walk down the sidewalk or knock on your neighbors’ doors and introduce yourself. There are plenty around. Show them a little mercy by giving them something to think about.