Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interacting with Atheism’s “Keep the Merry, Lose the Myth” Billboard Campaign

I have had the opportunity to interact and converse with a number of atheists over the years. Some of them have been downright rude, hostile and extremely condescending. Perhaps even most of them have come across that way. Unfortunately, I think many Christians engage in the same sort of scathing rudeness toward atheists and others who hold to a contradictory worldview. On the other hand, some of them have been very kind and even more gracious than some Christians I have interacted with. Atheists should not judge all Christians by the behavior of specific Christians, and nor should Christians do the same with those who hold to a non-Christian worldview. Now, all this being said, I wish to interact with an article covering the latest atheist holiday campaign. My purpose is to help Christians recognize why and how the atheistic worldview is incredibly incoherent in what it claims to believe as this article will demonstrate.
American atheists, a leading secular organization devoted to the cause of banishing religion, has decided to pay for billboards around NY City with the words, “Keep the Merry, Lost the Myth.” Atheists are naturalists, meaning that all that is, ever was, or ever will be is the physical universe. In addition, atheists argue that every natural phenomenon must necessarily have a natural explanation. The antecedent of every effect is a natural cause. If one can demonstrate that naturalism, as a system, lacks the requisite force to account for reality, it follows that rational human beings should reject the system and look elsewhere to answer the question of reality. However, we know as Christians that there is a strong ethical component involved in formulating a philosophy of reality, and this certainly is no less truth for atheists than it is for Christians or any other human as far as that goes. Hence, despite the walking contradiction that atheism is, it refuses to die as a rational system of belief as these billboards clearly demonstrate. For the remainder of this blog, I want to talk about the contradictions of atheism as it relates to the billboard idea and a few of the statements these people made in the article that appeared in the Christian Post.

The overwhelming majority of atheists are metaphysical naturalists. They insist that the natural, physical universe is all there is and that every event necessarily has a physical or natural cause. “Often naturalism means that everything can be explained in terms of chemical and physical processes.” [Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. 522] If every event in the whole universe must be explained in terms of the whole universe, how does one explain the reality that the whole universe had a beginning? You cannot explain the origin of the universe in terms of the universe because there was no universe at that time by which to explain it! Naturalism fails to provide a rational explanation for the basic idea of the very existence of nature itself. 

“But the very scientific naturalists who insist on explaining everything in terms of physical and chemical laws cannot explain their own scientific theories or laws in terms of mere physical and chemical processes. For a “theory” or “law” about physical processes is obviously not itself a physical process. It is a nonphysical theory about physical things.”[1]
Indeed, Dr. Geisler makes a very profound observation. It is better to insist that atheists provide answers to these questions than it is to spin our wheels trying to answer every challenge they pose to the Christian worldview. Many Christians would be surprised at the number of very basic questions about life for which atheists simply have no credible answers.

A physics professor was once asked: “If everything is matter, then what is a scientific theory about matter?” His response was, “It is magic!” When asked his basis for believing that, he replied “Faith.” It is interesting to note the inconsistency that a purely materialistic worldview resorts to faith in “magic” as the basis of their materialistic beliefs.[2]

You might laugh at the professor’s answer and realize that he is jesting. That is perfectly fine. However, the stark reality for the professor is that he cannot answer that question. He knows this and thinks it best to avoid the question by providing a humorous response and quickly moving on. Again, naturalism is a worldview that, by its very nature, can only explain what it sees and why it sees it in terms of naturalistic causes. In this scheme, there is no power or rational justification for actual laws. For the naturalist, the law of gravity is not really a law but a description of observed natural processes at work. The idea that a rock “ought” to fall to the ground if dropped is not an “ought” in terms of actual law, but in terms of natural processes, or things that simply are, facts of how molecules and atoms work in the natural course of things. Nature simply exists. It exists the way it exists without purpose, without design, without meaning. To say that nature has purpose, design, and meaning is to say that there is something “other than” the universe responsible for its existence. To admit this would be to abandon naturalism altogether. At a minimum, it would involve an irrational and contradictory naturalistic view. Things just exist. The universe just is. We just are. “Why” we exist is not a question that naturalism can answer, and if it is consistent, it does not care to answer it. There is no rational basis for why a naturalist would want to answer the question of origins. Live and let live. Enjoy the time you have in space and derive as much pleasure as you can while you can. Outside of time and space as we know them, there is nothing. Consistent naturalism admits we are not here for a reason. Life really does not have meaning and purpose. We just are! Some atheists would contend that I have constructed a straw man so that I can knock him over. However, regardless of the complex and convoluted responses that naturalists may thrust at my narrative, the statements I have made are essentially and ineluctably true and no naturalist, regardless of the sophistry with which they might respond can recast naturalism in a better light.

I want to start with the idea of a billboard campaign to begin with. Why would a naturalist care about other human beings believing in a religious myth? If we just are, and life really has no meaning, no purpose, no design, why not allow people to keep their delusions? Why engage in this campaign to begin with? If naturalism were true, how can it account for this basic urge to correct error and to set the record straight? The only justification for such a campaign is the existence of some norm with which everyone should be in conformity. But how could a consistent naturalist believe in axiomatic norms? The answer is that they cannot. Only an inconsistent, incoherent naturalist could argue for ethical norms. And that is exactly what rests at the foundation of this billboard. In fact, a theist could use this billboard to demonstrate that moral law is at work in every human conscience, even in those who deny it most.

Second, why do these atheists assume that lying is bad? Apparently, these atheists believe that people should be “honest” with themselves. Why should an atheist think that it is a bad idea to lie to oneself? Where does this idea of lying come from to begin with? It is pathetically ironic that an atheistic argument has to invoke the ninth commandment in order to argue that the commandment giver is nothing more than a myth. If atheists are going to argue that God is a myth, then they should at least have to come up with their own material.

Third, why should anyone be merry at all, and why should they especially be merry around the holidays? If life is an accident without explanation, then where does this notion of jocosity come from? What is the origin of human joy? Why should we be happy? Why do we seek happiness? Why are we sad? Why do we suffer depression? All these emotions depend on a standard, a norm, an idea of how life is supposed to be. In other words, they depend on an “ought” in life. Life “ought” to go like this or that! Unless life is designed with purpose and meaning, there is no ought! It just is. How can we talk about hurting, about pain, about disappointments when expectations that are grounded in “ought” shouldn’t exist in the first place. The atheists talk about the joy of family and friends. What joy? Why should we feel warm and fuzzy about close friends and our family?

These atheists claim, “The true beauty of the season – family, friends, and love – have nothing to do with the gods of yesteryear. Indeed, the season is far more enjoyable without the religious baggage of guilt and judgmentalism." In a universe that is a random accident, that has at bottom a genuinely arbitrary existence, we cannot account for beauty, joy, and guilt. Beauty is the combination of qualities that make something pleasing and/or impressive. How does one even talk about pleasing and displeasing from a naturalistic standpoint? An atheistic response to the beauty we see in nature, in the universe, in other humans is indeed one of the most, if not the most vulgar response to God that any human could ever offer. The point here is that naturalism provides no rational basis for any kind of talk about beauty or any kind of warm and fuzzy emotions about family and friends. It most certainly affords no place for talk about love. What is love? How can science account for love without reducing it to biological processes in the brain? If love is a biological process in the human brain, then so too is hate! If that is the case, all actions based on biological processes in the brain must be ethically neutral or at a minimum, ethical equivalents. Hence, giving your life for someone you love is ethically equivalent to taking the life of an innocent child. I realize this will make the atheist recoil with emotion, but then again, why should it? I am only carrying his/her worldview to where it logically terminates.

In fact, can an atheist even offer rational justification within a purely naturalistic worldview for the concept of celebrating anything? What is a celebration? What is the basis of celebration? What must exist in order for the idea of celebration to be legitimate? Celebrate means to show happiness that something good or special has happened. What does good and special mean in a naturalistic worldview? Good implies norms and so too does special. Norms cannot exist without some sort of “ought.” If there is “ought,” then transcendence must come into view. However, transcendence cannot exist in a naturalistic worldview. If we don’t have transcendence, we cannot have “ought.” Without “ought,” we have no norms. Without norms, there is no cause for happiness and nothing is special because life has no meaning, no purpose, no value. And if life has no value, no purpose, no meaning, then there is no cause to celebrate. We can say let’s celebrate all we want to. But there is no good reason for it. There is no rational justification for celebrating. It just is!

For Christians, this is indeed a special time. Placing all debate aside, this is a time when we especially remember the Christ event. We declare with the Palmist, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; Let the many islands be glad.” (Ps. 97:1)

The prophet Isaiah issued an expansive and resplendent utterance when he said, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” In the Hebrew language, the name used at the end of this verse is עִמָּנוּ אֵל. Hebrew is written left to right, so when I say the first two letters of the first word, I mean the second word for those who do not know Hebrew. The first two letters of the second wordעִמ  is the Hebrew preposition “with.” This word sounds like “EM.” The second two letters of this word, נוּ is the pronominal suffix for us. It is the Hebrew first person plural pronoun. Hence, this word means with us. This word sounds like “NEW.” Put them together and add the pointing that you see under the second letter and it sounds like “EMANEW.” The second word, or as English readers would understand it, the first word, ‍אֵל means God. When you put the two words together, Isaiah was saying that the virgin born child’s name will be called God with us. This word sounds like “EL.” Put the two words together and it sounds like “EMANEW EL.”

Where does this wondrous prediction find its fulfillment? We see this fulfillment in Matt. 1:18-25. “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” Luke records this event for us in Luke 2:13-14, “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Christians have every reason to rejoice and be merry, not only during the holiday season, but all year long. And yes, we especially have good cause to rejoice when we think of that very special event some 2,000 years ago when our Savior and Redeemer condescended in human form to rescue and redeem us from a cold, dark, lifeless world, to spare us from God’s righteous wrath, and to call us into His family as sons and daughters, to give us eternal life, to cloth us in His righteousness, and to infuse us with His Spirit by which He would be with us now and forever more.
Come, young and old from every land -
Men and women of the faith;
Come, those with full or empty hands -
Find the riches of His grace.
Over all the world, His people sing -
Shore to shore we hear them call
The Truth that cries through every age:
“Our God is all in all”!

Rejoice, Rejoice! Let every tongue rejoice!
One heart, one voice; O Church of Christ, rejoice!

[1] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 522.
[2] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 522.

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