A Short Critique of Atheism

Foreword: After first publishing this post and subsequently talking it through with some good atheist friends of mine, it came to light that many of the issues I raise here may come across as a personal attack on atheism or atheists. They were never intended that way. Rather, what I set out here is a deconstruction of the particular flavour of Neo-Darwinism (New Atheism) found in Dawkins, Dennett, et al. when taken to its logical conclusion. Its purpose is philosophical, not personal. To all my thoughtful atheist friends and Christian family, this one’s for you, with love.

I am an atheist.

What does that mean?

“A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.”

But if there is no God, there can be no “I am.” Without the divine, there is no self. There is no person. 

If all is the crackling of atoms in the dust, if all is neurons forming connections, if all is reduced to particles leaping together one moment and breaking apart in the next, there can be no “me,” no “you.”

By definition, an atheist cannot be an atheist, because atheism presupposes that there is no self to which that label refers. The human is not a person, but merely an evolved creature reduced to advanced cells reduced to bare atoms.

Let’s take this one step further. Humanism makes an atheist presupposition – namely, the human without the divine; morality derived from the natural rather than the supernatural. But this is problematic. Atheism takes the human out of humanism. There is no self to call your own, no common humanity from which ethics arises. No, we are all just dust and ashes swirling in and out of existence, labelled according to pragmatic scientific categories for the sake of simplicity.

Logically, when all is biology explained away by physical sciences alone, the “I am” by which you make the statement falls apart. There is no “I am.” The mind, the self, the soul – whatever personality to which you refer – is redundant. The mind is not a thing-in-itself – rather, it is simply the result of neurons moving and converging. There is only causality, with no freedom of will. There is no will. There is no way of externalising yourself. You (a term used with caution, because there can, in this system, be no you) are simply the result of a mechanistic system of cause and effect.

But this can be taken even further. If there is no absolute truth external to the human, and no truth internal to him because there is only flesh and dust, there can be no morality. Ethics becomes a game of what is most useful to society, the great game of the preservation of the species.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that a society saw its most pragmatic ethical course as eradicating a particular people group for the sake of its survival and flourishing. Let’s imagine Hitler’s brand of National Socialism, and his systematic persecution and elimination of the Jews, for example. “Evil!” the humanist cries.

But, how can he say this with any substance? First, there is no moral order (external “right” or “wrong”) to which this cry of unfair play refers. Secondly, since there is no person, there can be no Holocaust – in the sense that no people were exterminated. For all is atoms. There can be only nihilism.

This is a tyrannically dangerous road to journey down. Atheism means the abolition of everything. Nothing is real, nothing is certain. There is no you or me or us. 

This isn’t an attempt to say there aren’t good reasons for being an atheist – rather, it is a plea to examine the logical consequences of your assertion.

If atheism is correct, there is no reason not to pillage, rape and murder – because anything can be justified by the “preservation of the species.” If, in retort, you appeal to “common humanity,” you have to go further and give me grounds for believing in the human being.

The natural cannot be explained away without the supernatural, because without God, there is, quite literally, nothing – nothing you can call yourself, or your lover, or the things you hold most dear.

This is why, for the Christian, everything turns on Christ. Christ is the invisible God made visible, and the Son of Man – spirit intersected with flesh and blood and atoms. He is anthropology, producing a philosophy of the person – the supernatural intersecting with the natural, dust animated with spirit, atoms erupting in divinity.

All turns, therefore, on Christ. Without him, all talk of God can be put away safely because, even if there is a God out there, there would be no way for natural man to reach the supernatural. But with Christ, God presents himself to man, as man – personal being, identity and all. He, the perfect man, a model for humanity – who, by implication, are individual beings with selves, made according to that image.

Christ is the pivot on which it all hinges. Without him there is nothing, with him everything is at stake.

 

Stick it to the Whirlwind

Theologians have for millennia borrowed the language of the Philosophers of old – words like all-powerful, all-loving, and such forth – in an attempt to systematically describe God. But our theological language for God is a chasing after the wind to comprehend the incomprehensible. Using such terms to describe he who is by nature indescribable is like trying to stick a post-it-note to a hurricane.

This is what trying to describe God by reason alone is like, and our words will only ever get swept up in the terrifying beauty of unknowingness as we label and negate. That’s why, when the man Job called God to answer him, God spoke to him out of a whirlwind – uncontainable, boxless, boundless, without limit.

But theological language is limited in its scope.

Let’s use an illustration. The language of theology, we might say, is like an automobile. You see, as a regular driver, I possess very little knowledge of how my car works under the bonnet. When I open the door, sit myself in the driver’s seat, and turn on the ignition to start a journey, I am clueless as to the processes of combustion and technicalities of fuel injection and a myriad of other things working together to make the vehicle move.

I have elementary knowledge, yes – a few scattered items of intelligence picked up from my conversations with other drivers and my own experiences of driving. Nevertheless, I am able to drive the car without such technical knowledge, without the lingo and the jargon associated with the car’s inner workings. I trust that the car will get me from start to destination based on the instructions I got from my teacher, instructions sufficient for the purposes I need the car for.

After all, when I get out the car on the other side, none of that knowledge will need to be kept at the front of my mind. The car will have served its purpose, and I will get out and carry on with my business. My elementary intelligence will have been enough to do what I set out to do.

Let’s imagine, in the town I grew up in, the only person who possessed both this practical and technical knowledge was a single driving instructor – there are no mechanics, no scientists, no car experts to tell me about the car’s inner workings. Such knowledge would be beyond my reach. However, going on the word of the instructor, I still had enough practical information to pass my test and successfully journey in my car.

Now let’s imagine that this Driving Instructor is not like any other driving instructor. He is a mechanic’s son, but not any mechanic – the Expert Mechanic, the Architect of Driving itself, the Inventor who designed cars themselves. It sounds ludicrous, yes, but stretch your imagination with me for a moment.

In this analogy, despite knowing all there is to know about cars, the Mechanic’s Son chooses only to tell me how to use a car to get me from A to B. He realises that further knowledge is beyond me, would even overwhelm me. But he tells me all I need to know about driving – how to journey from start to finish. Anything else is an interesting matter of curiosity, but is nevertheless superfluous for my purposes.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Just as in the analogy it was only through the instruction of the Instructor that I could pass my test and complete my journey, so the language of Theology must begin and end with the words of the Son, the one alone who “holds the keys to eternal life.” Good theology is like the car that gets us from start to finish. God, the destination, is beyond the realms of human language, but in becoming flesh, the way to God is made manifest to man. All that is necessary for this end is a relationship with the Son, the Mechanic’s Son, the Instructor, in whom is all the knowledge we need to pass from here to the destination.

Such is faith, and such is theology – trust in this man who claimed to have the only Way. 

We are all running about with a thousand different words and concepts to comprehend the One who is incomprehensible. However, every word that has been conceived of God, the inner workings of the entire universe, culminates in Christ. What is beyond man’s limited comprehension is given to us in a tangible way in the God-man.

He is the Way. The only Way. God – inaccessible, beyond knowledge, beyond us – is accessible, knowable, tangible, through a man, Jesus Christ.

Where our theology is swept up into the whirlwind, Christ steps out, takes us by the hand, and gives us the only information we need to get to the destination, eternal life. We don’t need the inner workings of the car. We only need to know how to get it home.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

 

All Quiet on the Western Front

The life of the Christian can sometimes seems like fighting on the winning side of a war. You, the soldier, are making advances, gaining territory, following the Commander wherever he might go, victory after victory. One of God’s epithets in the Hebrew Bible, after all, is Baal-Perazim: “the Lord of breaking through.” All is well. Hardships, yes; but each of these is met with breakthroughs and joys and the abundance of life that the Captain promised you back when you signed up.

But sometimes this life of following Christ can seem like trench warfare. Stalemate. You’re sitting tight; you haven’t seen action for weeks and months, nor have you heard from the Commander in all that time. You’re restless, tired, and weary, living off the last of your rations. You don’t know when or where the next attack will come, and nor do you know when the Captain will bring reinforcements. Maybe the Commander has even forgotten us here, starving here in the wilderness?

It’s all quiet on the Western Front.

But there is a rumour among the troops. A whisper travels across the front lines. There is a stirring in the trenches.

Hold tight, because we haven’t been forgotten. 

Don’t you remember the time when you followed him faithfully to battle, and every time experienced victory, they say. He’s doing that again. A few miles down the line, they’re breaking through. Sit tight. Be patient. He’s coming for us. 

And trust. 

Whether in the trenches or winning victories, this Commander tells us we are valuable pieces in the victory plan. This is a God who tells his people both to move forward off this mountain (Deuteronomy 1:6) and to stand still and remain steadfast (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is a time for moving forward and a time for standing in the place we are, because it’s all part of the victory plan.

The seasons of waiting, the times when all seems quiet and all seems lost, are still vital moments in the victory plan for this new Kingdom. The Captain calls us one body and one army, keeping some pieces in reserve and some for attack and each supporting the other. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, you, soldier, brother, sister, are still part of the victory march.

The Captain is sweeping across the front line like a tide, a tide of mercy, justice and righteousness. We’re part of his plans. It’s time to listen to our orders and stay at them with trust and humility, knowing  that whether we’re in the trenches or in the forward forces, we’re part of the plans for victory.

The Catcher and The Chimp

The devil is a monkey catcher. 

They say that in India, monkey catchers use a particular kind of trap to snare their prey. They attach a box or a bottle to the ground, placing inside a banana or a handful of nuts, tempting attractions for their primate quarry. Then they wait.

The ape, oblivious to the devices on his life, unknowing reaches into the trap, and clutches the treasures within. Sliding his slender hand into the small opening, he grabs the prize, closes his fingers around it. However, when he tries to retrieve his hand the reverse way through the opening, he finds that he cannot – with his digits closed into a balled fist around his treasure, he is no longer able to free himself.

The chimp is clever, but stubborn. He values what is now his, that which tempted him and is now in his possession, and he refuses to let go. This is is his undoing. This is his end. In his refusal, in his denial to let go, the catcher seizes him, bags him up, takes him to captivity.

The cruellest irony is this: it was in the ape’s power to escape all along. He was free, right up to the point he was captured, to let go, to escape. His free will held him captive long before the snatcher did.

The devil is a monkey catcher, and I am the buffoon that was wooed by his snares. 

The devil is a monkey catcher. We are the monkeys that stumbled into the trap after our desires. The stupendous paradox of it all is this: we know that we cannot ever taste the fruit, incarcerated in the trap, but, fools that we are, stubbornly hold onto it anyway. This, as I understand it, is the Christian doctrine of sin – forever reaching into bottles, wrapping our hands around objects of desire that those desires will never be sated by, trapping ourselves while always unable to truly enjoy the fruit within.

External agency has very little to do with this willing subordination – it is our own rebellious free will that holds us there. There isn’t much more for anyone else to do – the snatcher has an easy job as the bag comes down and the lights go out.

This is the predicament we are stuck in.

When we as Christians speak of the way out, the grace of Christ, it is often with the idea that grace is something safe, something friendly. We make it all sound rather painless. As if we will gain everything from it and yet lose nothing.

As if we’ll be released from the trap and still be able to have the fruit within.

Perhaps when Christ  said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off,” he meant this: that he, through grace, is offering a way to get our hand out the bottle, but we’re going to have to lose a hand in the process. In our refusal to let go, grace is a visceral solution, but the only way out. Without power to release our grip, he offers to wield the sword and cut us off from this ensnarement, permanently. 

It sounds radical. It sounds extreme. But he knows the fruit we so desperately wanted isn’t going to satisfy us. He knows it is poisoned, poisoned with the slow decay of desires not met, of consumption that does not satisfy. By losing a limb to free us we’ll save the whole body.

Perhaps we’ve got to stop talking about grace as if it is painless. Grace isn’t safe, but it is the only way we’re getting saved from this snare. If we’re going to let Christ’s work change us, we’re going to have to trust him with the sword.

Confessions

It was at the threshhold of a world such as this that I stood in peril as a boy.

When we set out to learn a language, we first have in our finite arsenal of verbs and phrases only tittles and tattles of the new tongue, mere snatches of full comprehension. We pore over the few words and sentences we know, ignorant, largely, of the rich corpus of language of which we have only a tiny understanding. We are little sailors marooned in the midst of a vast, unknown sea of vocabulary and sentences, with only the sight to see a few miles around, a map redacted by our lack of comprehension.

We have only a little technical knowledge, but other than that, we are entirely ignorant. We comprehend the alphabet but not the language. We see the shadows cast by the light of hundreds of years of advancement and development culminating to the full corpus we have before us, and we are only now catching on to the end of that vast heritage. We are children learning an adult’s game.

This world’s foundations are spelled out in a language of which we barely have utterance, this cosmos written in characters not our own.

And yet we think we have it in our reach. We think that this object of our study is something we can box into our powers of understanding. Yet we are foreigners comprehending an unknown tongue, exiles chasing after a wind, philosophers grasping after abstractions.

In my youth I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.

So it was that I found myself on the threshhold of this world, this world which spoke to me in an unknown language. Here I was, clutching for verbs and nouns and phrases to make sense of it all.

I immersed myself in its language. I learnt its ways from its self-proclaimed experts and teachers. They taught me that this was all there was, there was nothing more to it. They taught me verbs and nouns as if they were well formed sentences.

So I learned and thought I had Knowledge. I heard sayings and thought I had Wisdom. I lusted and thought I knew Love. I ate and I drank, and thought I knew Satisfaction. I lived and thought I knew Life. I wronged and thought I knew Right.

I knew clusters of nouns and mistakenly thought I had grasped the whole language.

When I thought I had the whole corpus, in reality I had only a hollow carcass supported by the broken ribs of my ignorance.

Here was the slave who ran away from his master and chased a shadow instead!

This world was flung into existence by a Word, cast in the foundations of the Language of God; Logos beyond comprehension. We search it out as if we can grasp that Language, and yet we can barely come to terms with its alphabet. Letters like Love, and Knowledge, and Wisdom, and Justice, all making up this divine corpus, far beyond the power of us children to understand.

We pursue Science and Philosophy and Learning, all directed to the end of making sense of this tongue from above, and yet we barely able to decipher the characters on the page. We are navigating a cloud of unknowing, chasing after shadows, letters that escape our grasp like wind.

It is this that makes the incarnation of Christ on Earth so astonishing. That, in an act of sheer grace and love, this inconceivable Logos, this Language, would become comprehensible flesh. That eternity would reach down to earth on our behalf. That light would step down to cast out shadow.

It is by faith alone that we walk in this – to trust in the tangible unknown of God made Man, that we might step into the Language of eternity.

All itallics from Augustine’s Confessions, Books I-II

The Journey North

As I pack my entire life into a few small boxes, a conflation of emotions swirl like a snowstorm in my mind at what this season of change will hold. A mild sense of nausea about leaving behind everything I’ve known washes up against a euphoric shore of excitement for what will come; pressing anxieties are subordinated by the long to-do list of my brain as I make final adjustments and preparations.

But from amidst this turbulent bag of feelings comes the realisation that life in this earthly body, in truth, is itself one single, passing journey. A series of fleeting, treasured, momentary happenings propelled by the ticking machine of time; memories made as we shake hands and build empires and meet lovers and kiss and break up and break down and laugh and cry and one day, finally, reach our destination.

This life is one short train journey, if you like; a journey that begins at a station not of our choosing. We are passengers and travellers, never staying still, never able to hold on to what has come before, forever growing older as the landscape around us changes with the rhythm of the motion. Each life event that seems so massive to us at the time it happens – our first exams, moving to university, our first kiss, our marriages and our breakups, our career breaks and our successes- are no more than momentary stops at stations on the route. In those passing places we forge our identity, we have conversations with fellow passengers that give substance to life, and act as if these short stops are our permanent residence; but in a minute we are moved on again, forever journeying toward our destination.

This is the realisation that comes when we, as fellow humans, come up against the man Jesus Christ and His astonishing claims. He, stepping down into the transitory materiality of our little Earth, tells us that it is all passing away, it is all a chasing after wind, a meeting place for beings smelted in the crucible of time. This man, who claimed to have “no place to lay his head” is the leader who sends his disciples out into the villages with nothing but the staff in their hands and the clothes on their back, because, He says, anything that we as humans could hope to hold on to – our homes, our possessions, our victories and power – are all passing away. He stepped into the Galilean dirt for one second in history to tell us that this earth, in which we hold everything we treat as dear, is simply a passing place to an eternal destination.

That is why the early church leader, Peter, calls us “foreigners and exiles” – for once we meet with the Eternal Son, earthly things pale as no more than the passing landscape glanced out the window of the train. We have an idea of where this train is taking us – for we have been given a map of the stops. However – and this is the crux of free will – the choice of where we get off is up to us. However, the man Jesus, boldly claiming to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” tells us of only one station that will give us access to eternal life in the abundance of God – and that is through Him. He is the “gate to the sheepfold,” he is the train station to Paradise.

This realisation can be either overwhelmingly nauseating or an immense freedom. For us who claim to follow Christ, the choice to trust is the equivalent of dying a death, for He claims that those who hope to save their lives will lose themselves, but those who lose their lives to Him will save themselves. But, in that moment of dying to a world that is, in reality, dying before our eyes with every passing moment, we are lost in a joy that comes only with surrender; a surrender as we live with hands open, hearts unburdened, enjoying these fleeting moments as a foretaste of the day when we see our Father face to face when we step onto the platform of eternity.

Any fear of the future, as I embrace my journey North, is drowned in the perfect love of an eternal Daddy, knowing I, a being construed of breath and dust, am called a Son of God. For the meantime, I live to take in the breathtaking scenery as I make my way Home.

The World Outside The Walls

One day, you find yourself waking below the ornate arches and archaic architecture of some ancient museum. Lying there, you remember nothing of the past – your only reality is the here and now of the present moment. You pick yourself up, you start exploring; connections in your mind are excitedly awoken as you trace a story of your surroundings through the corridors of artefacts you come across. Everything so new to you, so awe-inspiring, a terrifying journey through cavernous rooms filled with treasures and blueprints and unknown things.

You come to a large door in an unassuming corridor; cracks of light breaking through the splintered wood indicate that this is the front door exiting into some brave new world, out there. You give it a push. Nothing gives. No handle, no way out – this door is locked on the outside, and it is beyond your power of reason or strength to find a way out. You retrace your steps.

You begin to meet other people on your journey through this endless place. Most of them have been awake longer than you. Some of them have made elaborate theories about how you got there; some have taken to an investigation into the composition of the stones, the science of the building, an enquiry into the elements of this marble universe from which you cannot escape.

In one corner you hear the muffled conversation of two bearded old compeers who have lived in this place for all their short lives – they say that the ornate and intricate design work in the interior indicates some sort of architect, some designer who lives outside in the real world; his or her character, they can only guess at. From another corner you hear younger men scoffing – “Of course there is no designer. There is order, yes, but there is chaos too, chaos that no designer would allow – you see dust and dirt, you see ivy breaking through the cladding, you see mould in the manuscripts, you see all manner of wild plant life breaking through the outer walls. This is all there is – order and chaos, and us to make sense of it all.”

Everywhere, men and women have their own elaborate theories, but none of them has any substantial idea about the nature of the world outside the walls.

Someone has mapped out the vast entirety of the place. Others have worked out the relation between the positions of the artefacts; yet others have considered the material composition and age of the relics. They seem to have made sense of the whole affair. Science at her best, casting new light into the shadowy recesses of the museum they call home.

And yet, they can go no further. There are questions even the scientists can’t answer, and even if they were more intelligent, they’d still be no closer to the truth of the matter. They’ve got the facts about their little world straight. But, trapped inside the museum, there is no way they can get at the answers about the things outside. They can’t hope to, from within the dusty confines of their prison, gain true intelligence about the fresh air outside. Questions about whether the museum does or does not have an architect, questions about this architect’s character, even if he does exist – all impossible to get a clue about simply from observing the interior of the structure.

This is the calamity we find ourselves with. We are trapped on the inside. We are in the museum. We are all, if you like, fish in a fish bowl seeing only refracted rays of light seeping through the liquid. Science can go as far as searching out the answers about our material world, and as humans we’re closing down the gaps in our knowledge. But even if we search it all out, we merely have total inside knowledge of a closed system, locked from the outside. Science is the truth about that system, but it can’t go any further. It can’t claim to have knowledge about things outside the system, about whether something or someone put the system in motion; about if someone built the museum. If she claims answers to these questions, she oversteps her mark.

Where does this leave us? Lost, chasing the whim of some far off sound, the echoes of birds who call to each other on the rooftop?

The Christian position is this. That, unlocking the front doors from the outside, a man steps into the confines of our museum world. He makes the ridiculous claim that he is the Son of the Architect, the rightful possessor and heir of the structure. He, in opening the door, gives us the taste of the fresh air outside, the natural light of the world beyond, a hope of freedom. We taste something we haven’t tasted before, something we can’t quite put our finger on – but we don’t quite get the full thing. Not yet.

This man gives us an ultimatum – that if we would but trust him, hold his hand and one day follow him out, we can forever live in that world. We must only wait until the time that the Architect has ordained for the doors to be broken and the windows smashed, so that the world outside can stream in and breathe new life into the hallways of stone. Until then, we live in faith, holding on to the brief catch of air we tasted in our nostrils when he first awoke our senses to the outside. He tells us, even if the others kill him, we must hold on to him, seek him out; for to those who trust, he will return and lead out.

Some shout him down as a madman. Others condemn him as a vile trickster, among the worst conmen for letting people buy into a lie. But those who looked him in the eye, who saw the depth of the love and mercy he held there even as the others led him down the corridors to kill him, they trust him still.

They hold on to this man’s astonishing promise. What alternative do they have? He holds the keys to the door. It is either that, or spend out the rest of their short lives traversing the meaninglessness of empty rooms and among objects whose wonders have worn off, forever disappointed by the half-baked answers of confused men.

So we hold on to the catch of breath contained in the memory of his voice, trusting that one day his promise will be fulfilled and that the doors will be thrown wide open.