This is part of an ongoing series from Ken Hensley – stay tuned for further installments!
I have always loved the study of Christian apologetics.
In fact, the first Christian author I ever read was C. S. Lewis. I was twelve, and the book was The Screwtape Letters. And yeah, I have no idea how much — or little — I understood of it.
At any rate, for a great number of years now, I’ve been thinking about ways to defend the truth of the Christian worldview.
When I’m talking to someone who already believes in God, as most people do, I focus my thoughts on the case for Christianity, as opposed to Islam or Judaism. But what about the person who sincerely doubts or denies the very existence of God? What then? What do I talk about in this situation?
What I want to do in this series of articles is share with you the apologetics method I most often use in such situations.
The New Atheism
The number of those who would identify as atheist or agnostic is rising. One only has to look at social media to encounter the militant and mocking atheism of men like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and their disciples. You’ve got Bill Maher on TV, snickering at the childishness of those who believe in a God for whom there is “no evidence.”
Atheism also has become more and more dominant in academia. Christian apologist Phillip Johnson writes:
The most influential intellectuals in America and around the world are mostly naturalists, who assume that God exists only as an idea in the minds of religious believers. In our great universities, naturalism — the doctrine that nature is “all there is” — is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only the natural sciences but intellectual work of all kinds.
Take a moment to absorb this: The doctrine that nature is all there is has become the “virtually unquestioned assumption.…”
In my experience, this assumption has become so thoroughly “unquestioned” that most atheists I interact with don’t even view themselves as needing to argue their case. “I have nothing to defend,” they will say. “You’re the one making the assertion that God exists; the burden of proof is on you!”
Thus the one who believes in God is continually kept on the witness stand and on the defensive. It’s our job to present arguments and evidences for God’s existence. All the atheist has to do is listen and respond, “Not good enough! Try again!”
While it is true that in debate the one making the positive assertion bears the burden of proof, what is not true is that most atheists are making no positive assertion. For instance, how about the following positive assertion: “Nature is all that there is”?
When dealing with someone who asserts or assumes that “nature is all that there is” the approach I like to take is the ‘Wizard of Oz” approach. What I like to do is pull back the curtain on his “naturalist worldview,” turn the lights on, and kindly, lovingly, gently challenge the atheist to face the logical conclusions of his naturalism.
Specifically, I seek to challenge the atheist to make sense of his own experience as a human being in terms of what he says is true of the world in which we live.
John Searle is a well-known atheist philosopher, a professor of the philosophy of mind at U.C. Berkeley. He writes:
There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy: How do we fit in?… How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, un-free, non-rational, brute physical particles?
This is the question I like to ask of my atheist friend. OK, I will present arguments for the existence of God that I believe are valid. As for you, how exactly do you square what seems to be the universal, intuitive conception we have of ourselves as human beings with what you say is true of the universe in which we live — that nothing exists but “mindless, meaningless, un-free, non-rational, brute physical particles?”
This is the challenge of Christian theism to a naturalist view of the universe. We are mindful. The naturalist’s universe is mindless. We are meaning-creating. The naturalist’s universe is meaningless. We are free. The naturalist’s universe is hopelessly, mechanically deterministic. We are rational persons. The naturalist’s universe is comprised from top to bottom of impersonal and non-rational, brute physical particles. In the universe that would exist were naturalism true, there is no room for man as we know and experience him to be.
What I hope to show my friend is that attempting to account for the richness of human existence and experience in terms of “brute physical particles,” well, as one of my teachers liked to say, it’s a bit like a man made of quicksand trying to climb out of an ocean of quicksand on a ladder made of quicksand.
So, with these ideas in mind, how do I talk to someone who doubts or denies the existence of God?
To begin, when I sit down for a cup of coffee with someone who doesn’t believe in God, I try to keep a few things clearly in mind. What do I, as a Christian, believe about this person across the table from me? And about the world in which both he and I live?
1. Scripture teaches me that all of creation evidences God’s existence — indeed cries out the existence of the God who made it.
I think immediately of Psalm 19:1–4:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Of course, the atheist will deny that creation gives evidence of its Creator. But my concern at this point is not with what the atheist believes but with what I as a Catholic believe.
And what I believe is that creation speaks of God’s existence and nature (“The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands”), that it speaks of this God continually (“Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge”) and that this message reaches every person (“There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”).
In other words, the message of creation is one my atheist friend has received as well.
2. Scripture teaches me that this message of creation “gets through” and that at some level everyone knows the God who made them.
In Romans 1:18–20, St Paul writes,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which may be known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
According to St. Paul, God’s existence and divine nature is “evident,” “clearly seen,” being “understood through what has been made.” In fact, he says that to dull this knowledge, to erase it from his mind, sinful man must engage in a “suppression” of the evidences.
What this means is that there’s no chance my atheist friend has not looked at a gorgeous sunset and quietly given thanks. There’s no chance that he has looked at the face of his newborn daughter or son and not seen the glory of God.
At some level, he already knows the God I want to talk about.
3. Scripture teaches me that my atheist friend is himself the most eloquent argument there is for God’s existence.
How so? Because my atheist friend is “the image and likeness of God.” As a personal being, he reflects the personal nature of God. As a moral being, he’s like God. As a rational being, a being with free will, a being who loves, and desires, and perceives meaning in things, my atheist friend reflects the very being and nature of God.
In other words, unlike anything else in creation, human beings have been designed to function as finite “mirrors” of God’s nature.
It turns out that while the atheist denies God’s existence, he is himself the single most eloquent and convincing argument for God’s existence. He’s a walking, talking advertisement for God’s existence.
4. Finally, as ironic as it may seem, Scripture teaches me that my atheist friend desires relationship with God more than anything and has been looking for God all of his life.
St. Augustine put his finger on this reality when he wrote in his Confessions, “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
This truth is so important that the Catechism of the Catholic Church nearly begins with it. Seriously. In Part I, Section I, Chapter I, under the heading The Desire for God, we read:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.
A Life Lived in Continual Tension
Putting this all together, when I sit down to talk with someone who identifies as an atheist or agnostic, I’m sitting with someone who has been confronted with God’s existence all of his life.
In the beauty of the universe, in the faces of those he loves, he has seen God’s face. He has never looked into a mirror, or into his own soul, without seeing the image and likeness of God. At the deepest level, my friend knows that he is more than a mere collection of molecules, some kind of biological machine. He knows this. And (as we’re going to see) it comes out in so many aspects of his life.
In fact, without being able to name it, the desire he has for a happiness he never stops searching for is a desire for relationship with God, which would open the door to right relationship with himself and with the world.
And yet he has come to believe there is no God.
What this means is that my friend lives in “continual tension” between who he really is, and in his heart of hearts knows himself to be — the image and likeness of God — and what he would be if what he says about the world were true.
That’s a mouthful. Let me illustrate what I’m saying. Imagine a scientist who says there is no such thing as gravity. Imagine he writes books on the non-existence of gravity and travels the world giving lectures on the subject. This is what he has come to “believe” and what he “says” is true of our world: “Gravity does not exist.”
On the other hand, because he’s forced to live in the real world, he ends up contradicting himself — literally — with every step he takes.
And the fact that he doesn’t bother to glue his notes to the podium, or chain himself to the floor, gives unmistakable evidence that at some level he knows that his belief system isn’t true. If he were to attempt to live in a manner consistent with what he says is true about the world — stepping freely off the tops of skyscrapers, walking out the doors of airplanes in flight — he would immediately perceive the error of this thinking. But he doesn’t. Instead, he lives as though gravity exists. He just believes and says that it doesn’t.
This is position of the atheist, I believe. He says there is no God and that he is nothing more than a biochemical machine, but he cannot live as though this were true. He insists with atheist Richard Dawkins that we live in a universe in which “there is no design, no purpose, no evil or good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” But he cannot really live as though this was true, and he doesn’t.
What he does is contradict himself, all the time, in a number of ways. He lives, mostly, as though God exists and he is the image and likeness of God, while forcefully denying these truths.
It is this exact point of tension that for me becomes the point of contact for evangelism.
How does my atheist friend square the conception he has of himself as mindful and meaning-creating in a universe of meaningless and mindless brute physical particles? How does he square the conception he has of himself as a conscious and free rational moral agent in a universe which he says is from top to bottom determined by unbending physical and chemical laws?
What if the universe really were what my atheist friend insists that it is: a universe in which there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference?” What would the implication of this be for the meaning of life? What would the implication be for morality, for human worth and dignity, for human rights, for our sense of ourselves as persons, for free will, for the possibility of knowledge? What would the implications be?
When Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, the spell was broken. As I raise these questions and seek to draw out the answers in living color, my hope is that the naturalist spell will be broken. My hope is that the logical implications of what my friend says he believes will so contradict what he, as the image and likeness of God, knows to be true, that it will cause him to think again.
We’ll begin to illustrate this in our next installment. Stay tuned!