Atheism vs “Thoughts & Prayers”

It’s becoming common nowadays to see atheists and skeptics ridicule prayer in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Harvey. One clever meme that I’ve seen this time around contains a picture of an empty truck, with the caption, “Good news! Your shipment of prayers has arrived.” Funny, right?

Secular scoffers who speak thus usually explain that expressions of “thoughts and prayers” aren’t only obnoxious, but harmful, since (they reason) such sentiments are offered as substitutes for actual, material aid. People who might otherwise donate money and time are exempted from doing so because their prayers and positivity feel like sufficient effort. Hence, the atheist concludes, we have another example of how religion poisons everything.

There are two things I find interesting about this mindset. The first is how detached from reality it is. Prayerful, religious people are consistently some of the most giving, most voluntaristic citizens. The alleged connection between prayer and inactivity is little more than an assumption based on a presupposition. Atheists, after all, believe that the reason people pray in the first place is that they are overwhelmed by life and lack either the ability or the willingness to face it honestly. Accusations of hiding behind “thoughts and prayers” an excuse not to serve others looks good to skeptics on paper because it confirms a preexisting set of beliefs about why humans chose to believe rather than disbelieve. So the old irony appears again–it turns out that atheists act very fundamentalistically when it comes to how they think of others who don’t think like them.

The second thing I find interesting is that prayer, unlike almost every other religious practice, is naturally private and personal in a way that secularists generally enjoy. New Atheists go hoarse explaining that they don’t want to outlaw religion or railroad private religious beliefs out of existence. They just want to make sure that religion stays private–out of public education, out of public policy, out of public influence. If there’s one religious discipline that should fit this bill perfectly, it’s private prayer, right? Isn’t prayer what we want religious people doing in lieu of actually going out and spreading their beliefs?

So why the animosity toward prayer? I don’t think it’s because praying people are stingy people, as I’ve said. Rather, I suspect that secularists dislike expressions of prayer in times of tragedy because such expressions are reminders of the limitations of human effort. “Thoughts and prayers” irritate those who cannot offer them. In moments of true human empathy, where we want to reach out and fix something broken about the world but cannot reach far enough, there’s something written on our hearts that tells us that Someone should be able to reach for us. Prayer is an invocation of that Someone. That’s why the skeptic, whose universe begins and end with human evolution and revolution, resists it.

This is why the fracture of the world, rather than its design, is the strongest apologetic for the Creator. For the materialist, all the suffering, all the agony, and all the sympathy in the universe adds up to little more than a footnote in human history. There is nothing, and ultimately no one, above or below it. The voice in the soul that whispers that drowning mothers and trapped elderly and destroyed homes are not the way the universe is meant to work has nowhere to direct its message in the mind of the prayerless. Such sentiment either reverberates hollowly against an indifferent natural universe, or else is suppressed as meaningless neurological events. For the prayerful, however, the hurricane brings with it reminders that families weren’t designed to die, and that somewhere this truth holds fast.

“Thoughts and prayers” suggest that hurricanes cannot destroy everything that is really real. For the prayerless, this is terrifying. For the prayerful, it’s the best of news.

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New Atheism vs Science

Thomas Nagel has an erudite and punchy review of a new book by “Four Horseman” Daniel Dennett. Read the whole thing here, but here’s the haymaker:

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs…”

…There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.

This is, I think, the fatal flaw in the New Atheist project. Its commitment to naturalistic materialism works wonders on glassy-eyed undergraduates and Bill Maher, but it fares less well when live questions of science and philosophy are put to it. Nagel is an atheist like Dennett, but where Dennett’s naturalistic materialism commands every element of his philosophical strategy, Nagel is hung up–like a scientist!–on questions that materialists seem unable (or uninterested) to answer.

Nagel’s right that there’s no reason to go through “mental contortions” for science’s sake. Nor, I would add, is there any reason to debase your humanity and siphon beauty and wonder from your worldview for the sake of “rationality.” There’s a better explanation for everything. You just have to be open to it.

What I’m Reading

I thought I’d share some of my current reads. Right now I have a list about 6-7 books deep that I hope to get through before my wife’s due date of August 1. We’ll see about that, I suppose.

Keep in mind that none of these blurbs are necessarily recommendations, for the simple reason that I’m currently reading them and haven’t finished yet.

One note: Please consider buying these books and using the links on this blog post to do so. I’ve recently become a partner in the Amazon associates program for bloggers. If any of these titles appeal to you, I’d be grateful if you use these links to make your purchase.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

This one is #1 on my summer priority list. The Zaleskis set out to do something of a 4-way intellectual biography of the most important members of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles WIlliams, and Owen Barfield. I’ve loved the legacy of the Inklings for years and have always read about them in individual biographical volumes of the writers. This work looks like a treasure trove for anyone interested in these incredible minds and how they intersected with one another.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
Robert Putnam is one of the most well-known and influential social scientists of our time. Bowling Alone is an older work, published in 2000, but it is frequently referenced as a seminal study on the disintegration of close social bonds in America.

A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, John Piper

This is John Piper’s new book, which looks like a brief theology of Scripture and the Christian use of it. Piper is one of the few authors on my “Read no matter what” list (a list everyone should have, by the way).

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

I haven’t read anything by Walker Percy, and from what I’ve heard this is the best place to start. I decided to jump into this one after constantly seeing references to Percy in some of my favorite non-fiction writing.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Erik Larson

Erik Larson is quickly becoming one of the most celebrated history writers in the country. This book tells the true story of the Chicago Worlds Fair and the serial killer who stalked it. I’m very early onto this one, and already Larson’s rich prose and keen historical eye have me hooked.

Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton is one of my favorite living philosophers. I’ve read his books How to Be a Conservative and The Soul of the World. Modern Philosophy looks to be an introduction to contemporary issues in philosophical writing. Scruton has a gift for incisive scholarship, a crucial talent for any philosopher.

Why Should You Trust the Bible? 5 Questions With Pastor Greg Gilbert

 

Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky (full disclosure: Third Avenue is where I am a member), wants you to “get” Christianity. That’s why, for example, he has a Masters in theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s degree from a little New England school called Yale. It’s also why Greg has written, to date, three short, easy-to-read volumes on the basics of Christian belief: What Is the Gospel, Who Is Jesus, and now, Why Trust the Bible.

Greg’s latest work Why Trust the Bible? is a brief primer on why and how the Bible stands up to even the most strident criticism and examination. I asked Greg if he’d be willing to answer 5 questions about Why Trust the Bible, and he graciously did so.

_____________________

How did doing an undergraduate at an Ivy League school help you prepare for articulating the kind of arguments you’re making in “Why Trust the Bible”?  

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any “culture shock” coming from a small town in East Texas to Yale.  Other than eventually forcing myself to love coffee, the main thing was that all of a sudden, essentially no one approached Christianity with the same deference and presupposed acceptance that was normal for basically everyone in my home town.  All of a sudden, every proposition of my faith was under question by peers and professors alike, and so I had to do the really hard work of figuring out not just what I believed, but why.  At first, I think I took a fairly defensive posture in the conversations I was having.  My main goal was just to be able to say, “I believe this, and that’s intellectually defensible.”  

But over time, I think I finally got frustrated with that approach and decided to go on offense. I didn’t want to end the conversation just having shown that it was okay for me to be a Christian.  I wanted to show people that the pressure really was on them, not me.  They needed to defend themselves for not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. 

That was an intellectual revolution for me–to realize that the evidence for Christianity is actually so good that a Christian can go on offense with a non-believer and challenge them to defend their unbelief.

In your own ministry context, do you tend to see more people doubting the trustworthiness of the Bible due to intellectual/logical issues or due to personal/existential crises?

It’s almost always a tangle of issues.  Intellectual questions can introduce the kind of doubt that leads to personal crisis, and personal crisis can lead people to doubt the Bible on an intellectual level.  So it’s important always to deal with both sides at the same time; you have to get the wheel turning, and it’s impossible to make half of it turn if the other half isn’t turning as well.  Does that make sense?  

3. What’s one common mistake you see Christians making when it comes to dialoguing with non-Christians about the trustworthiness of the Bible and Christianity?

 I think the most damaging mistake is accepting the world’s assumption that we don’t really have good reasons for believing what we do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Christians get backed into a conversational corner and finally just throw up their hands and say something like, “Well I can’t prove it to you! You just have to accept it on faith!”  And of course when we do that, the unbeliever just chuckles and walks away thinking, “That’s what I thought.”  

But the Christian faith isn’t like that at all.  We don’t accept it on an empty “leap of faith.”  No, there are solid reasons for believing what we do about Jesus.  There are reasons for believing the Bible is trustworthy, for believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and for believing that he really is who he said he is.  And the thing is–they’re not just reasons that will be convincing only to those who are already convinced!  They’re reasons that, if we understand them and use them well, can challenge an unbeliever to rethink his unbelief.  I think that’s what Peter meant when he said, “Always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you.”  That word “defense,” doesn’t mean “defense” as we hear that word.  It means “case.”  Make a case.  Have reasons that will not only make you feel better, but will make an unbeliever feel unsettled.  

 What author(s) has been particularly helpful to you in thinking about these questions? Specific books?  

There are a lot, and many of them are mentioned in footnotes and also in an appendix in Why Trust the Bible.  None of the arguments I make in that book are original to me (well, maybe one or two!).  The idea was just to take the massive, detailed case Christians have made for centuries about the reliability of the Bible and put it in a form that Christians can read and grasp and use quickly and (I hope) easily.

If you had time to say only one sentence to an atheist to provoke them to consider Christianity, what would that sentence be?

“Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and how can you be so sure?”

Be sure to pick up pastor Greg’s new book Why Trust the Bible, available everywhere.

Why You Should (Probably) Major in Philosophy

  1. Philosophy is difficult.
  2. But it is not very difficult. It’s easier than calculus and a lot easier than physics.
  3. Philosophy is all about books, books, books.
  4. An enormous amount of the most important philosophy books you can read are public domain and therefore (legally) free. If you want to build a library on a budget, philosophy is the way to go.
  5. Philosophy is about ideas.
  6. Philosophy isn’t just about old ideas
  7. Philosophy isn’t just about new ideas
  8. A good philosophical education will give you a foundation in literature
  9. …in history
  10. …in logic
  11. …in art
  12. …in math
  13. ….in science
  14. …in law
  15. …in writing
  16. ….in theology
  17. ….in politics
  18. and much more.
  19. Philosophy is one of the few subjects that will actually affect how you watch movies like The Matrix, Star Wars, Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and lots of others (if you want to learn how to interpret movies well, skip the film degree and do philosophy).
  20. Aside from theology, philosophy boasts the richest contributions from Christians.
  21. Within philosophy you can study a mind-boggling number of topics and traditions, like epistemology (how do we know things?), ethics (what is right and wrong?), metaphysics (is there a God?), linguistics (what do our words mean?), aesthetics (what makes something beautiful?), philosophy of history (what does it all mean?), philosophy of science (is science really worth anything?), etc.
  22. Philosophy will help you have better conversations.
  23. Philosophy will help you have better reasoning skills
  24. Philosophy may help you get a job.
  25. Philosophy will make you, if you let it, into a lifetime learner.