Monday, March 03, 2008

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?


Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Monkey Morality or Goodness Isn't Magical

Wai-hung said...

"You show me a world without a Creator, then you also need to provide grounds for the existence of goodness in this world."

- Kant has done that already. And I guess you are familiar with the Euthyphro problem: Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?