Friday, March 07, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Problem of Good

I've had exactly a week since my Enterprise-Record article, "The Problem of Good" appeared, and I'd like to offer a few thoughts in response to my critics.

First of all, I am thankful for those (admittedly few) who responded. I am convinced that solid Christian thought (although my article was really simply "theistic") has nothing to hide, and therefore gains much, from honest engagement. Admittedly, many self-proclaimed religious "thinkers" are embarrassments. On the other hand, judging from some atheists, they have not cornered the market! So my hope is that this open exchange of ideas will prove fruitful.

I should also say something I couldn't include in my 700ish-word ER article: I am convinced that science provides excellent means for us to understand the complex realities of nature. Particularly, Darwin's theory--and subsequent neo-Darwinian evolution--have much to offer. I am thankful to be in serious intellectual interchange over his theories through the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and Metanexus Institute. I realize that Darwin's theory will continue to produce profound insights, as well as questions, for theists. For what it's worth, in my reading, Darwin himself appears not to have taken his theory toward atheism, but remained something of a deist. In any event, I was highlighting the contradiction that some atheistic scientists find themselves in (namely, that they have no ground for good within their systems of thought).

And this brings me to a central item that has missed the attention of my critics: In the article, I am quoting atheists. Dawkins, Geller, and Weinberg provide the ideas. It is not Augustine, Pascal, and Tillich. In a blog apparently populated by Dawkins's disciples, they pointed to his argument in "The God Delusion" on good. Dawkins does in fact present a kinder, gentler atheism in that book, but without serious philosophical reasoning for his bold assertions. For all his stylistic brilliance, Dawkins most often resorts to name-calling, inuendo, and bullying. (That's probably why the book has sold so well--it fits our zeitgeist.) I find it hard to take him seriously. In philosophy, one cannot put this book in the same work by atheists such as Diderort, D'Allembert, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, or Russell. Instead, I chose to quote him from the earlier, "River Out of Eden" because he was much more thorough and honest there.

Tanya Heinrich's thoughtful reply, in the previous post, seeks to solve the problem of good by saying essentially that there is no such thing as good. It is a way out of the dilemma. I'm struck that this is so unsatisfying intellectually and ultimately circular. I can say that poetry does not exist, and that it's simply black and white on a page. But where does that leave me? Without the beauty of Shakespeare's or Eliot's words. She does offer that contemporary thinkers--she references Quammen--are seeking to build a new system (which of course has been a project for the past 200 years or so). They haven't convinced me yet that there is a sufficient reason to posit the non-existence of good, meaning, beauty to match the related non-existence of God.

Ms. Henrich's thoughtfulness does escape her when she closes the argument by writing, "There are those who believe that religion and science can co-exist. I am not one of these people. Religion is a crutch that was contrived to control and manipulate people and used in most despicable ways." This is an example of the lack of serious thinking that atheists so often apply to "religion." Can she really be serious that all religion was contrived to manipulate people? The assertion is so broad as to be either easily falsified (select one religious tradition that was not contrived to manipulate--easy) or as to have no actual explanatory power.

There is much more to say, but in this post, I'll close in with this: I am seeking to take atheists seriously by looking at the import of their words. When I do, I see that they come to incredible roadblocks in their theories. Christian theologians have been much more honest about their aporias for centuries, and it's time for the New Atheists not only to know their sparring partners better, but to engage in a higher degree of intellectual rigor.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Response to my article, "The Problem of God"

Dear Rev. Cootsona,

Thank you for your article in the Enterprise Record of March 1, 2008. It prompted this response from me:

The problem of ‘good’ is not insoluble for this atheist. Here’s how I do explain it. Good and evil are simply human contrived words--each being opposed to one another; either word is not a word that describes or fits into the natural world. Evil is a religious word. Better descriptors can be used to describe wasteful destruction, harm, pain, etc, but ‘evil’ connotates a satan or devil. There is no satan or devil.

By contrast, ‘good’ is a word that does not fit in a naturally evolving system of life on the planet. Life evolves in a manner that allows it to be in a constant state of change or flux. How exciting and marvelous is that to know! This makes me want to live forever; there is STILL so much to discover in the natural world. It is all so fabulously interesting! Pitiless indifference but absolutely fascinating nonetheless. I do fully agree with Richard Dawkins.

You might enjoy reading The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen. It gives wonderful insights into the complexities of Darwin’s discoveries of life evolving on the planet.

Humans are a part of the world, not separate from it. We are still animals despite the best efforts to deny this fact. We are certainly unusual animals and in the end may have a history on this planet that is so short (think geologic time) that we will almost be immeasurable, except for the dramatic influences we’ve had on other living systems. It seems that the more we have used technology to improve our lives, the quicker we’ve moved towards eradicating ourselves with the growth of our numbers (heading towards 7 billion and still expanding exponentially), exploiting natural resources, causing species extinctions, altering natural systems, etc.

This atheist finds herself satisfied with the same joy and appreciation of life as any other person might. In fact, I would say, more so, because I hold no falsehoods, belief in mythology or superstitions; nor do I deceive myself or waste time with prayers and activities that do not advance knowledge of the reality of life itself. I do not have to be ‘forgiven’ as I lead a life of consciousness that takes responsibility for my own actions.

There are those who believe that religion and science can co-exist. I am not one of these people. Religion is a crutch that was contrived to control and manipulate people and used in most despicable ways. The fact that religion continues today reminds me that humanity continues to evolve with all the rest of life, but I for one, feel free -- truly free.

Tanya M. Henrich

The Atheists' Problem of Good

(This essay appeared in Chico's Enterprise-Record over the weekend. I figured that posting it might create some additional public dialogue... for the good.)

The existence of good—and the related realities of meaning, purpose, and beauty—present together an almost insoluble problem for the atheist.

And I didn’t actually have to formulate the problem of good on my own. Prominent atheists have already taken on that task for me. Consider the words of Richard Dawkins, Oxford scientist, and bestselling author of The God Delusion: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that 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.”

That’s a reasonably bleak portrayal of the universe, and, since we’re part of that universe, of our lives as well. It does, however, correspond perfectly with a basic conviction from Philosophy 101—“nothing comes from nothing.” Start with a purely physical system without any Creator, and all you have is brute fact. If the universe is simply a physical system, then why should something non-physical like good, meaning, purpose, or beauty arise? It cannot. Margaret Geller, formerly an astronomer at Harvard and now with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, believes that it is pointless to mention purpose in the universe: “Why should it have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there?” And, given certain implied metaphysics, she’s right.

There will no be point and no good without something from outside infuses the system with these qualities. The words I’m typing right now have no meaning, no potential goodness or beauty, without the context that words can lead to sentences and thoughts. In the Western cultural tradition, of course, that meaning and goodness have come not from something, but from Someone—a Creator who imbues the physical system with non-physical qualities in the act of creation.

But, of course, the West is gradually moving away from its mooring in creation by a good, meaningful, purposeful, and beautiful Creator. Stephen Weinberg, the Nobel-winning physicist and atheistic scientist, stated this problem very pointedly. As we increase in scientific knowledge, our ability to comprehend its meaning has decreased. “The more the universe seems comprehensible,” Weinberg assets, “the more it also seems pointless.”

Pointless indeed. And why is this not a greater debate with the so-called New Atheism? My doctorate, and subsequent research, engages the dialogue between science and religion. And my very calling as a pastor often evokes the challenge, “How can you believe in a good, almighty God when there’s so much suffering in the world?” Put simply, I am often confronted by the problem of evil.

And there is a problem of evil, to be sure. It remains the greatest argument against belief in God according to no less voice than the great medieval philosopher of religion, Thomas Aquinas. So I agree with Thomas and with the atheists. Nonetheless, when we look not at some abstracted Omnipotence, but at the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth—a God of suffering, creative, and beautiful love—it begins to look quite different.

That topic, however, is not the focus here. Instead, I am offering a counter-question to the atheists. You show me a world without a Creator, then you also need to provide grounds for the existence of goodness in this world. How do you intend to answer the problem of good in a world without God?

Generally, the response is a bald assertion of human creation—that we supply the qualities lacking in a world devoid of God. Weinberg, when interviewed on his comment about the “pointless” universe, makes this offer: “There is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art… faced with this unloving, impersonal universe, we make a little island of warmth and love, and science and art, for ourselves—that’s not an entirely despicable a role for us to play.” I find myself sympathetic to his conviction, but I do hear the thud of an unfounded leap of blind faith.

Certainly, from the mouths of atheists, it sounds like the problem of good is insoluble indeed. And I believe it is… without an act of faith. The question is this: Will this faith be reasonable or not?