The Atheist Delusion!

Now let’s be quite clear.  When I started this blog I really never thought this would be the type of thing I would ever write.  I have no interest in “taking on” people like Professor Richard Dawkins, and the other atheist in that kind of group.  I’m not even sure it helps the Christian cause when we come across as being more interesting in “winning the argument” than we are in just caring for people.  But I guess I feel that I’ve been left without a choice.

Quite a few of my non-Christian friends have commented on a number of these blogs with Atheist challenges.  Please understand that I’m not in the least bit complaining about that.  I happen to really enjoy a good debate (perhaps a bit too much, sometimes I forget that some people take these things more personally than me!).  But, in regards to the challenges I’ve had about what I’ve written here,  I normally answer something along the lines of, “I wasn’t trying to prove anything, I wasn’t trying to argue for the existence of God”.  However, this is normally associated with a nagging thought that they haven’t really “heard” what I said.   Almost as if the words I used meant something slightly different to them. 

Then two things happened.  Firstly, a friend of mind made a comment that you must be “sniffing more than glue” to believe in something like the virgin birth.  This was after watching Simon Amstell (hope I’ve spelt that right!) doing his live show in which he was talking about people with a faith, and said he doesn’t want to fight, but treat them with love and respect, because “the battles already been won”.  He went on to say they should be treated like little children who run round and say they’re a helicopter, “Oh that’s nice, I’m a choo-choo!”.  That seems to be the reasoning that most atheist friends come at me with .  “Faith” is now the polite way of saying “stupid”, because “the fight’s been won”(although, of course, they never word it like that).  But, and this is the thing I want to try to get people to see, the “fight” hasn’t even been started!  And this, some maybe surprised to hear, is not because the Christians are too scared to take on the challenge, but because the atheist can’t seem to understand what the “fight” is about. 

But let’s go back a couple of steps.  My objective is not to convince anyone, or even to “prove” there’s a God, but to try my best to communicate what it is Christians believe about the world and way the “fight” isn’t taking place.  Instead, what is happening is like a conversion between two people who don’t speak the same language!  But let’s start at the beginning and go from there.

Firstly, what is science?  It may seem like an obvious question, but as it is now heralded as the only way to “know” things, that anything not proved by science is only “opinion”, “faith” or “delusion”, I think it’s important we figure out exactly what “science” is!  Well, the Oxford dictionary defines it as

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

This seems fair enough, right?  I’m not misrepresenting it, am I?    This is science.  Science allows us to understand, and often use, the physical world around us.  This is a fantastic thing.  The very fact you can read this, that my ramblings can be viewed by anyone around the world, is testament to the amazing results that have been achieved though people carefully and systematically observing, and growing in their understanding of, the physical world around them.  I’m not for a second criticizing science.  I’m a very interested and fascinated lay man in the world of science and share the sense of awe and wonder that so many, whether with faith or without, can experience at the mind expanding things being discovered each day.  However, before we get ahead of ourselves, let me note something very important, science is “the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.  Remember that, “the physical and natural world”.

Everyone, regardless of who you are or what you believe, has a worldview.  A specific way of looking at, and making sense of, the world around them.  Many people don’t even realise they have these “lenses”, this grid through which everything they experience is made sense of.  But, whether realised or not, this worldview exists.  Now the worldview of the atheist, or at least an atheists like Richard Dawkins, is that the world is purely “physical”.  The only things that exist are those that can be examined by our eyes, or through a telescope, a microscope or something even more powerful than either.  This “materialist” view is, whether he likes it or not, an act of faith!  No proof can be found to demonstrate this, precisely because science is not some sort of “magic”, or an “all-knowing entity”.  No science is the careful observation of the physical world.  Therefore, by its very nature, it cannot give any clues as to whether the nonphysical exists.  To say that science proves that only the physical exists, or that it demonstrates that the physical is more real, is to be confused as to what science actually is.

If you believe that only the physical exists then science can answer almost all questions (although still not all!  The question “Why did Henry VIII break with the Catholic church?”, for example, is the realm of history, not science, as you can’t “observe”, or “experiment”, your way to the answer).  But be that as it may, if the physical world is all that exists, science can, eventually, bring nearly all answers.  I get that.  Nor do I disagree with the answers it finds.  But it cannot, by its very nature, give any indication as to whether or not the nonphysical exists.  To insist that the nonphysical doesn’t exist is an act of faith. 

If this worldview is accepted (by faith notice, not by proof), then any understanding of “a god” must fit within this worldview.  So Dawkins (I’ll just refer to him by his last name to save time.  I hope this will not be viewed as offensive, but as a sign of respect that he is now so well-known only his last name is needed!) does exactly that.  For example (From the 2007 edition of “The God Delusion”, by Dawkins)

‘The God Hypothesis suggests that the reality we inhabit also contains a supernatural agent who designed the universe’  p.81

No it doesn’t!  No thought through Christian believes that God “inhabits” the universe with us, as if you could fly to Him if you had a powerful enough rocket.  The universe doesn’t “contain” God.  God doesn’t “dwell within” the universe or “outside it (whatever that might mean)” (p.59).  If you’re struggling to understand how I can say that both are contradicting Christian belief then you, my friend, are a person of faith, because you have a “materialist” worldview!  You must be assuming that God is “in a place”, which is itself a physical description.  (I shall try my best to describe the Christian worldview shortly.)  This is why Christians get annoyed when, the apparently leading atheist, compares belief in God to belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden (p.74), or a flying teapot is space (p.75), because both of these (and several other examples he gives) would be physical entities within our universe.  Therefore, we would expect science to either have discovered proof for them, or indicate the likelihood of them existing.  BUT this is not the case for the nonphysical God of the Bible. 

So, does the nonphysical exist?  Are you, for example, purely physical?  Or is there a “part of you” that is non-physical?  Like in those films where people “body swap”, where the “real” you is not your physical body, but your “soul” (or “spirit”, or any other word you wish to give it).  Or is the sense that there is more of us that our physical bodies nothing more than electrical pulses in our brains?  Now some believe that we have a “soul” and that this the “real” us and our bodies are simply a “carrier” for this soul.  As strange as it may seem, Christians don’t actually go this far!  Instead, Christian understanding is that there is both a physical and nonphysical aspect to a person and that these two are deeply intertwined.  We are more than our physical bodies, but nor would we truly be ourselves if we became a “disembodied spirit”.  That’s why a Christian’s future hope is not to fly off to a nonphysical heaven, but to be physically resurrected with a physical body (albeit one which no longer ages and decays).  You can cut a human up, examine him under a microscope or test various chemicals on him, but you will never prove, or disprove, whether there is part of him that is nonphysical, precisely because science is the observation of the physical!  Likewise, if you show that emotions, or beliefs are linked with electrical pulses in the brain, this still fits with the Christian understanding, because our physicality is bound up and linked with out spirituality.  So you can’t demonstrate that the “physical” electric pulses don’t have a nonphysical aspect to them, because (at the risk of repeating myself) science is the observation of the physical.  To decide there is no nonphysical part to our thoughts and emotions is not based on “proof”, but on “faith”. 

This brings us to the Christian belief in God.  The God of the Bible is not physical, but spiritual (Ps 139:7-12).  Neither is he “far away”, as if Christians believe that God “kick-started” the universe, ran away and just occasionally “pops-in” to pull off the odd miracle here and there.  No, Christians believe in a God who is deeply connected to His creation, sustaining and maintaining it.  This is why evolution is not a problem for a Christian, precisely because we believe in a God who guides and maintains His creation (and, incase you’re wondering, I do know the story of creation the Bible, but this blog is already taking too long without going down that road today!).  Showing how evolution is the result of physical processes is not, in any way, contrary to this, but simply a description of what was physically resulting from God’s sovereign control.  As well as this, miracles are not God “popping-in”, but part and parcel of his interwoveness with creation.  (It’s important to emphasises, though, that Christians still see a distinct difference between God and creation.  They are not the same thing).

I am pleased to say that Dawkins does, at one point (for about 5 pages!), seem to realise this and argues that it would still be the case that a universe which emerged by purely physical processes would be different from a created universe (p.82).  I agree with this.  However, he himself admits that, in practice, working this out would be difficult.  He also says that certain questions are still the realm of science:

‘Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  Did he himself come alive again, three days after being crucified?  There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer.’ p.83

While I would argue that these are historical questions, and not scientific (see above) I still agree with his point and am quite open to discussion as to whether these events happened.  Unfortunately, Dawkins never actually returns to these questions. 

I could go on, but I’ve already written too much here.  Remember I am not trying to convince anyone, but instead trying the, extremely difficult, job of getting across a different way of understanding the world.  “Translating” the Christian faith into an atheist worldview, then knocking this artificial faith down is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already sign up to your own worldview!  To argue against something you have to understand it first. 

Christians, like atheists, are people of faith.  The only difference is that Christians haven’t deluded themselves into thinking they’re not!

 

About David

I'm the curate at St. Anne's Church, in the parish of Shevington, Standish Lower Ground and Crooke. I'm married to Carole and have two beautiful daughters called Sarah and Anabel
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5 Responses to The Atheist Delusion!

  1. Kevin says:

    Just the thoughts that come to me on reading your post:

    You mention “the Christian belief” repeatedly and proceed to talk about all Christians as though they all hold the same belief. The Bible, and other sources of Christian theology, not being factual (i.e. evidence based) are all entirely open to personal interpretation. When you claim to be speaking for Christians it seems to me as though you are only speaking for yourself. The reason why scientific method holds so much power and is so much more useful than religion or philosophy as a tool for examining the world is that its conclusions are dictated by the evidence. The conclusions of religion are subject to whim, preference, wish or political dictate. One only need look at the world around us to see there is not one “Christian” outlook.

    Science is the act of attempting to find the truth through observation and testing; gradually we get closer and closer to truth as science reduces error margins. Religion, if it does exist outside of the physical or material world, only does so by inhabiting the world of fiction. While science is the most accurate method of observing the real world, theology is at best an archaic, dogmatic and stunted method of fiddling aimlessly with the details of a fictional world. Every claim you make about god applies only to your own interpretation.

    Being an atheist isn’t an act of faith, it is the lack of an act of faith. Not believing in god came before believing in god, just the same as not being able to drive came before being able to drive; first there was the world, then there was gods and cars. All of your ideas about what god is and what god means and what god does are meaningless to an atheist (or at least this atheist) because they all rest on the unfounded assumption that god exists. The idea of god can and should be viewed as a scientific hypothesis (because it is possible that a universe created, maintained, observed, occasionally interfered with by god is very different from a godless universe). When a hypothesis is not backed up by observation and evidence it is rejected. This is the reason it is safe to assume there is no god. There might be, but given the lack of evidence there is no genuine reason to believe.

    On the subject of evolution and what it says about god you conclude “Showing how evolution is the result of physical processes is not, in any way, contrary to this, but simply a description of what was physically resulting from God’s sovereign control.” In a sense this is just not true. Evolution is a description of how species can form unguided exactly without “God’s sovereign control”. I agree that the theory of evolution is not direct evidence against the existence of god, but it does drastically reduce the gap god can safely inhabit.

    Often people talk about there being some essential self, a spirit, ghost, soul whatever that exists as a duality with the brain or body. This is often said to have an immortal eternal life after the death of the temporary body. Look at it this way for an illustration of why I consider it inherently ludicrous: The soul (which for arguments sake I will describe as the bit of the brain that feels love, ecstatic reactions to art, music and nature) is a function of brain which can no more exist without that brain than the heart beat can exist without the heartbeat. Were I to suggest that I believe my heart beat (or for that matter my renal function) were to have an eternal life after the death of my body, you would be right to laugh at me.

    Although your post contains some interesting ideas it is ruined by your insistence on speaking for all Christians, and by implication knowing what all Christians think. You also make claims to know so much about what your god is and does. When you say “The universe doesn’t“contain”God. God doesn’t“dwell within” the universe or “outside it (whatever that might mean)” it seems to me you are claiming to know so much that you couldn’t possibly know. If you get annoyed by comparing belief in god to belief in a teapot in space, because of a semantic game placing god outside of “place”, then how about this: Believing in god is like believing in a non-physical teapot that isn’t in any place, is outside of space and existence, but still is somehow worth thinking about, discussing and offering praise and prayer to.

    Actually the more I think about it your argument seems to be “atheists are wrong not to believe in a god that exists, because that is not the Christian god. The Christian god is actually a god that doesn’t exist. So if you are going to be an atheist, at least believe in the non-existing Christian god”. This sounds crazy, and indeed is, but that is the reading that comes from your blog.

    If god intervenes in the physical world, where is the physical evidence. If god doesn’t intervene, what’s so amazing about god?

    Indeed, this is a conversation between two people who don’t speak the same language.

    • David says:

      Thanks for your reply, very interesting. I want to make it very clear that I’m not out to have an argument and have no interest in having a conversation that descends into a “fight”. I’m happy to reply and respond to your comments, but know that nothing I say is meant as an attack on you personally.

      You’re right that I refer to “the Christian belief” and, to a certain extent, you’re right I can only speak for myself. However, your criticism seems to suggest that Christians can’t agree on anything! Despite what seems to be believed by many, all Christians, be they Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or any other group you wish to name, agree on at least 80% on things (And I’m being very conservative to keep it at only 80%). The Bible is not “entirely open to personal interpretation”. Some bits are open to interpretation and some bits are disagreed about, but most of it is quite clear and agreed on by all Churches. Now let’s take a quick look at what I contend to be “the Christian belief” in this blog entry.

      1. The Christian belief is that God is non-physical. Are you suggesting that this is only a personal belief of mine? You don’t think I can say categorically that this is “the Christian belief”? Really? This is hardly controversial, I’m not going out on a limb here. All Christians, regardless of denomination or traditional persuasion would agree on this point! The Bible, as referenced in the post above, is also clear.
      2. That “the Christian belief” is that a human is made up of both non-physical and physical attributes and that this is why we believe in a future resurrection. Again, you don’t think this is the common Christian belief? The future hope of resurrection is in the ancient creeds of the church, “I belief in the resurrection of the dead”, which are acknowledged by, as far as I’m aware, every Christian denomination in the world. Again, I’m not being controversial by calling this “the Christian belief”.
      3. As far as I can see, re-scanning what I wrote, the only other thing I call a Christian belief is that God maintains and sustains His creation. Again this is not exactly a controversial statement. It’s a very least implied in the creeds, “I believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth”, even if not actually said. But the Bible couldn’t really be clearer! God is sovereign.

      The point I’m making is that I don’t think your right to say I’m simply speaking for myself on these issues. I think you would be hard pressed to find a Christian, of any denomination or inclination, who disagrees with the three points I’ve declared to be “the Christian belief” in this blog!

      As for your description of Christianity as “fiction”. The Christian belief (yes I said it again because, despite your insistence, there is such a thing as a “Christian belief” and we all can agree on most things!) is that the Christian belief is based on actual historical events. You want to call it fiction? The demonstrate that the resurrection didn’t take place, or that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. Then you can call it fiction, until then you can’t call it fiction anymore than you can call the Roman Empire fiction.

      I agree that science is useful for “examining the world”, or at least the physical world. I’m not, despite what you seem to think, having a go at science. I think it’s a good thing, I really do. All I’m saying is that it’s not all-encompassing. It can’t tell us all the answers to everything. Your statement that “science is the most accurate method of observing the real world” can only make sense if you have decided beforehand, based solely on “faith”, that the physical world is all that is “real”. You may well decide this, but don’t think you’ve decided it based on science, you haven’t, science can’t tell you this.

      As I also say in the blog, I agree that a created universe would be different from one that came about purely by physical processes. (Although your statement that God “occasionally interfered” with the world shows you either haven’t read what I wrote, that I didn’t explain it properly or that you simply haven’t understood it). What would you expect to see in a created universe? A very careful balancing of factors, on a cosmic scale, for the existence of life? A perfectly positioned planet? What? Of course, you can explain these things physically, but that fits in with the God I described. If you won’t accept these as evidence, what would you? If there are no observations you would accept to change you view, is that science?

      Your comments on evolution have, I’m afraid to say, demonstrated that I have failed to achieve my aim. My aim was not to convince people there is a God, but to help them see what the Christian view is. You’re paragraph on evolution shows you haven’t understood the point at all. What do you think God’s sovereign control means? Do you think it’s that “occasional interferes” thing again? Because it’s not! It’s saying that everything, your breathing out and breathing in, the electrical impulses in your brain, the sustaining of gravity and the movement of planets around the sun, are all guided and maintained by him. You can, as I can, explain these things scientifically. And the scientific answer is true, that’s how it happens. But God is the “why”. I’m not expecting you to suddenly believe this. I’m not stupid, I don’t for a second think an atheist will read all this and suddenly decide to become a Christian. What I hope is that an atheist will start to understand what a Christian thinks and therefore why showing us evidence of evolution, or anything else, simply doesn’t begin to engage with the arguments. God is not the “gap”, he’s the one behind all the science, the “why” answer behind the “how” question. The trouble is that trying to explain this stretches language almost to breaking point. But try and read what I’m saying not with half an ear to “fighting back”, but with an attitude of trying to understand. Listen first, then, as no doubt you will want to, feel free to answer. But you must understand the argument first and you haven’t.

      You’re point on the soul describes your own worldview on the subject perfectly. But prove it? Prove that you don’t have a non-physical aspect to yourself. You won’t be able to, because what you’ve written, like it or not, is a statement of faith!

      As for knowing things about God. The claim comes because Christians believe God has revealed it. We haven’t figured it out, God has told us about himself. Again, I don’t expect you to belief this, only understand where we’re coming from before you attempt to disprove it. I don’t know, because I’m “ever so clever”, that the universe doesn’t “contain” God, I know it because God’s revealed it in the scriptures. A non-physical teapot has never revealed itself. I would be outside the realm of science to say if it existed (although I fail to see how you can have a non-physical teapot as a teapot is, by its nature, physical, it has to hold tea for a starter). But Christians believe (yes, I know you don’t like me saying it, but as we all agree on everything I’ve said I don’t see how I can put it any other way) God has revealed himself. Can you prove otherwise? Or does your faith stop you from even considering the notion?

      Likewise, you statement at the end:
      “atheists are wrong not to believe in a god that exists, because that is not the Christian god. The Christian god is actually a god that doesn’t exist. So if you are going to be an atheist, at least believe in the non-existing Christian god”.
      Is of course crazy! My point is that atheists aren’t disproving the Christian God because they fail to understand what Christians believe. The “god” that atheists are so confident doesn’t exist is a “god” I don’t believe in either! Want to convince me to stop believing in my God? Then argue against the God I actually belief in for a start.

      But one thing we can definitely agree on it that this is a conversation between two people who don’t speak the same language.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I wish you all the best in all things. Love and peace.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thank you for your reply to my comment. Forgive me if the tone I took came across as combative; I wrote it hastily after a long day at work. I too have no desire to fight. As I think we both already know we will agree on very little, I’ll keep my response brief and just focus on one or two of the points you raised.

    “You’re point on the soul describes your own worldview on the subject perfectly. But prove it? Prove that you don’t have a non-physical aspect to yourself. You won’t be able to, because what you’ve written, like it or not, is a statement of faith!”
    I cannot prove that I do or don’t have a non-physical aspect, but don’t see it as been particularly important. Whether I do or don’t makes no difference to the way I live my life, I just see no reason to believe that I do. Surely with no evidence either way the default position should be to disbelieve. Were it not, would we not end up believing in all sorts of unfounded claims?

    I’m happy to concede that I may have overstated the division amongst Christian believers with regard to core beliefs, but I maintain my belief that you overstated the unity.

    Generally I think the point I was trying to make about an atheist’s (this atheist’s) attitude towards god is that the doctrinal details of the belief are not that important (although they are interesting). Atheism is a disbelief in all supernatural entities, not just the Christian god you believe or the Christian god I unintentionally misrepresented you as believing in. If you want to view this as an act of faith I know there is probably nothing I can say to change your mind.

    From your position trying to explain how god is “behind” science/the physical world stretches language to breaking point. I don’t wish to be rude, but from my position it also stretches credulity and logic to breaking point. There is so much in the physical world that has not been revealed by science; how can anyone claim to know what is “behind” science. For me the answer “it was revealed in the scriptures” is mind-boggling insubstantial. I do not consider the idea that the bible is the literal word of god to be worth taking seriously.

    I have no desire to convince you to stop believing in god; it makes no difference to me what you believe and it clearly enriches your life. I also don’t want to offend or upset you, but I think your belief is robust enough that I will not. I hope I am right! I merely wanted to express some thoughts from my own position.

    Thanks for your original post and for taking the time to respond to my prattle! Best wishes.

    • David says:

      Like you say we’re unlikely to agree, so I’ll resist the urge to reply to your comments! Instead, simply Thank you for your comments and (if you’ll forgive the wording) God bless you!

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