Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Debate with Atheists at MSU

On November 20, 2009 I was part of a three-person panel debating the question, "Does God Exist?" against three atheists, two of which are part of the nationally-known circuit of militant naturalists campaigning against religion in general and Christianity in particular. My teammates were Dr. Zachary Manis, a brilliant young philosopher and Dr. Greg Ojakangas, an astrophysicist and neuroscientist. We were opposed by Dr. Richard Carrier, a historian and prolific writer and Dr. Victor Stenger, physicist and author of several books "proving" God does not exist. The third atheist was J.T. Eberhard, a leading young local atheist organizer.

All of made a presentation and then there was open discussion. The atheists could not resist attacking Christianity while we kept the debate focused on the topic. They also did not respond to our major points and kept to their script which can be summarized as 1) Science can or will explain all phenomena of human experience; 2) Why doesn't a good God intervene all the time and talk directly to us? and 3) Theists have no testable proofs of their hypothesis. Interestingly, after I gave my presentation (which is given below), the only remark Dr. Stenger gave was, "Nice words, but no proof." He missed the entire point of my work - but that is to be expected of folks who live in the small world of scientific naturalism.

The atheists have no good answers (except to attack religion) when theists contend that it takes as much - or more - faith to believe that something can come from nothing as it does to believe in a Creator. Dr. Stenger claims that he has "proven" mathematically that something can come from nothing. But "nothing" is not really nothing and there was quantum tunneling that produced a "spontaneous phase transition" that kicked off the evolutionary process.

In the end, the atheists resorted to attacking God for not preventing evil and even calling Jesus "immoral"! They love to shoot down the Bible and Jesus and ignore the gaps in their thinking.

Before I give my remarks, I must say clearly that theists do live with paradox and that we do not have tidy answers to all mysteries. I like the thought of Bishop N.T. Wright when he says that we cannot fathom why evil exists, why (in the words of G.K. Chesterton, a "sneer was found in the universe" at Satan and humankind's rebellions) evil exists, but we believe that God in Christ is overcoming evil and that God invites us to partner in the healing and reconciling process.

Here are my opening remarks at the debate:

Theism is a coherent and intelligent worldview that continues to animate human life with meaning and purpose. Many sane and informed people embrace theism.

I had the privilege of growing up in a home of free inquiry, moral integrity and respect for faith in God.

My neighborhood was filled with all types of friends. There were Hungarian refugees from the 1956 Revolution, a Jewish family behind us, and Catholics, Protestants and skeptics were coaching Little League and attending PTA meetings.

When I was 12 years old my father wrote in his 25th Anniversary Harvard University Alumni Journal that I was, "a fiery humanist and repressed basketball star (too short)."

My pilgrimage toward authentic, intelligent theism led me to embrace (the Christian) faith as a young adult and I continue to examine the evidence for all faiths or none to this day.

I am a regional signer of the Williamsburg Charter, a celebration of the genius of the First Amendment. The first sixteen words therein ("Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof") allow people of all faiths or none to live peaceable with there deepest differences, even while we debate them passionately. My name is alongside Eli Weisel and Norman Lear, Coretta Scott King and Billy Graham, atheists and believers.

In the audience today are thinkers asking the important questions and testing long-held assumptions. Let's read voraciously, listen deeply and ponder humbly. My Cowell College motto at U.C. Santa Cruz is, "The pursuit of truth in the company of friends." I hope that I make some new friends of all persuasions today.

As theists, we answer today's question, "Does God Exist?" with a resounding, "Yes!" contending that religious belief is reasonable and warranted by a fair examination of the phenomena of human experience.

Dr. Richard Carrier has asserted that given enough time, all we experience is or will be explainable by natural processes and that we do not need any supernatural intervention.

Dr. Victor Stenger considers belief in God a failed hypothesis, and that religious people have been indoctrinated. A fully liberated and thoughtful person will choose atheism if given an opportunity free from the debilitating effects of family and religious communities. (A note here to Dr. Stenger: you will be much freer when you are liberated from the narrow confines of scientism)

I think cumulative arguments for justifying religious belief are valid and I want to touch on several pointers to God's existence...

I agree with A.N. Wilson that theism is a "deeper, wiser, more rounded" perspective.

The thoughtful
person's cry for justice, in the words of N.T. Wright, is one echo of the divine voice that seems universal and is not reducible to biology. The companion to this cri de coeur is our capacity for altruistic action and sacrificial love. The moral argument remains compelling. From C.S. Lewis to Francis Collins, the road from atheism to theism is paved with the query, "Why do I know there is a moral law?"

Atheist Kai Nelson said, "Pure, practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality."

R.Z. Friedman declares, "respect for persons and survival of the fittest are mutually exclusive."

Atheist Richard Carrier's best grounding for morality: "You should be moral because you will be happier as a moral person overall than if you become another sort of person."

Our love of beauty and extravagant creativity is another pointer to God. Beyond anthropological attraction for a mate...beyond religious rituals...humans create! We paint on cave walls, we sculpt figurines and we devise new technologies. Our capacities for innovation point to God, a Divine Creator whose creative instincts we naturally image.

Our self-awareness or self-consciousness seems to distinguish us from our fellow-inhabitant of our planet. (By the way, the "hard problem of consciousness", raised by our own Dr. Ojakangas, was never answered by the atheists.)

Our spirituality and capacity for supra-rational experiences is another reflection of God. We cannot reduce the ineffable dimensions of life to mere neurons. Our opponents want to invalidate all transcendent experiences, reducing them to epiphenomena of our biology and environment. My opponents have argued that there is no proof for the supernatural and that there are millions of proofs of natural phenomena; therefore there is no need for God. In response I will only say that just one unexplainable miracle invalidates reductionist naturalism. Carrier argues that supernatural phenomena are so scarce and so improbable that they are not worthy of wasting time on. Come with me to Africa, meet some Bishops with Ph.D.'s who are dealing with the supernatural everyday and see if your world remains the same!

The infinite detail of the microcosmic and the vast expanse of the macrocosmic often awaken in inquiring minds the possibility of a Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. This is just as plausible as something coming from nothing or the eternal existence of quantum particles. Information does not self-assemble and the apparent absence of evidence (for God) is no the same things as the evidence of absence!

Our opponents see chaos, randomness, violence and waste in the evolutionary process and state categorically, There is no God." Theists look at the same evidence and say, "What a wonderful but fallen world we live in."

The limitation of our knowledge is a call to humility. My opponents point toward our advances in scientific knowledge as a sign of no longer needing a God-hypothesis. I think our advances in knowledge are wonderful, but the explosion of knowledge in our Internet Age has not transformed our character, ethics or relational abilities.

The greatest pointer to God's existence is Love. When we seek the good of others more that our own, we are choosing beyond pleasure, narcissism or survival. Such love is not the preserve of the religious, but it is an indication that we are more than biology and physics. Nurturing a baby, ameliorating suffering and remaining faithful in relationships all posit that we are more than accidental and destined for more than decay.

Atheist Matthew Parris, after watching religious relief workers in Malawi, commented on their sacrificial compassion, that it "confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit into my worldview and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God."

The best atheism can offer is faith in science and some notion of an accidental, random cosmos. I think it is wiser to humbly believe and then choose to be partners with God in making our wonderful world even better.

My next post: We have Nothing to Fear from Militant Atheism!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Living with Paradox

As I prepare for a civil and lively debate with atheist scholars this week, I am struck by the number of paradoxes thoughtful folks live with all the time. As a celebration of being human, let's ponder the following:

We are capable of amazing altruism and stunning depravity. In the same village one family rescues a Jewish refugee while another sells her neighbor for a price.

We encounter breathtaking beauty and life-taking tsunamis.

The same event moves some into church and tears others away from faith.

Wonderful neighbors lose their jobs while overindulged athletes "renegotiate" a contract that represents more money than many will see in a lifetime.

We awaken with a sense of destiny and then discover a friend has cancer.

"The starry heavens above and the moral law within" bolster our faith and then we receive a "No" to certain prayers as someone else is chosen for that position.

The reason for such tensions is not the absence of God or meaninglessness in the universe.

We live in a world that is simultaneously glorious and fallen, full of the fingerprints of God and the signs of cosmic rebellion. When I consider the cumulative evidence of the Divine, I am filled with wonder. Why is there something and not absolute nothing? Why do we dance, sing, paint and rejoice for no reason except sheer delight? Why do we cry out for justice for the poor and feel the pricks of conscience about our own selfishness? Why do we shake our fists in anger at God one day and praise him the next?

Committed atheistic materialists will define all such experiences and paradoxes as the random consequences of evolution and invalidate any transcendent meaning or purpose. That is their prerogative and there is a cold logic to some of their assertions.

As we approach Thanksgiving, it seems to me that the pathway of humility and wonder leads to clearer thinking, deeper passion and courageous service for others. God is able to handle our questions and tears, our spontaneous praise and our reflective doubts.

I thoughtfully choose belief and I defend the right of my neighbor to choose unbelief. Let's be thankful we live in a nation where civil debate is possible and neighbors live peacefully next to others who see the universe very differently!