I devoted the six previous installments in this series (“Is Christianity True”) to clarifying the concepts needed to answer intelligently the question of Christianity’s truth. We examined the nature of the question about Christianity’s truth, the concepts of truth, reality, knowledge, and faith, and the issue of who bears the burden of proof. Now we begin to address the heart of the matter.
Debates about the truth of Christianity begin at different points depending on which objection is being pressed. It would seem that a discussion with an atheist would need to begin with the question of God’s existence. Deists would agree with Christians that God exists but would object to miracles, the incarnation, and the resurrection of Jesus. And adherents of other religions and philosophies would press other objections and demand other bodies of evidence. Since in these essays I am addressing a general audience, I don’t want to presume a beginning point anywhere short of the most basic issue. In the previous post, I spoke of certain natural decision points at which one must decide which road to take. One road takes us further on the way to Christian faith and the other takes us another step away from faith. What is the first and most fundamental decision point?
If asked, perhaps most people would say that the most obvious beginning point for the debate between nonbelievers and believers is issue of the existence of God. Indeed, this debate may be the most obvious beginning point, but we must also keep in mind that explicit atheism and theism presuppose many judgments and decisions about background beliefs. These unspoken background beliefs must be true if atheism or theism is true. So, I want to look for the most fundamental decision point among these unspoken commitments.
Atheist philosophies vary markedly and resist simple generalizations. But I have to risk some generalizations or our argument would never progress beyond disputes over definitions. At this stage, using Alvin Plantinga’s definition, I will define atheism as the belief that “there is no God or anything like God” (Warranted Christian Belief). Theism is belief in one God conceived in a general sense that covers Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Perhaps some atheists would disagree, but I am going to take for granted that the debate about God’s existence makes no sense unless atheists and theists alike believe that something is real, that something true can be said about it, and that we can attain some knowledge of it. It would be hard to argue with someone who denies the presuppositions and rules that make arguments possible! In my view, a second assumption, related to the first, is needed to get the debate going. How could a debate progress unless atheists and theists agree that behind or at the beginning of all the manifold phenomena in the world lies something that explains the phenomena but itself needs no explanation? Rationality possesses a drive to relate and unify things that seem at first to be unrelated and separate. The notion that ultimate reality is composed of an infinite number of unrelated, unconnected, utterly different and self-existent entities makes reason ineffective and knowledge impossible. Hence there is a tendency among atheists and theists to seek for the fewest and simplest explanatory principles possible.
We now have before us the first decision point. If atheists and theists agree that there is an ultimate reality that explains all phenomena and events, the debate turns on the nature of that ultimate reality. Is it spirit or matter, life or death, intelligible or unintelligible, mind or machine? Clearly, atheism, as the belief that there is no God or anything like God, chooses the second option in each of these four pairs. For atheism, the beginning and end of all things is matter, death, the unintelligible, and the mechanical. The theism chooses the first member of each pair. For theists, the beginning and end of all things is spirit, life, the intelligible, and mind. The choice one makes at this fork in the road determines one’s most basic understanding of everything else. All future choices are but specifications and variations of this one.
Is the choice between these two paths merely arbitrary or based on one’s personality? Or, is there room for making a rational judgment? And if so, what are our resources for making this rational judgment? I see only three: our experience of our minds, our experience of our bodies, and our experience through our minds and bodies of the external world. Or, we can think of it this way. Through our bodies and minds we experience reality in two ways, as intelligible and unintelligible or as mental and material or clear and obscure or internal or external. These two basic experiences give us three options: (1) the intelligible is primary and the material is derivative; or (2) the material is primary and the intelligible is derivative; or (3) the material and the intelligible are equally primordial.
In the coming posts I hope to lay out the evidence available for making a rational judgment about which one of these three options is superior. But already we can see the huge significance of this most basic decision. If death is God, God is dead. And if God is dead, death is God.
Dear Dr. Highfield,
Well said all around, as usual. It strikes me that many Atheists would find the truth of the conditional “If God is dead, then death is God” unproblematic, even desirable. I had a discussion with an Atheist friend of mine once to the effect that it is the temporariness and brevity of human existence that makes it precious and makes it necessary to live it out to the fullest. As a director, he drew an analogy to film—the power of a film is created by the fact that it has a set end point, and everything done in between the start and end is paced to be as efficient as possible and tell as powerful a story as possible within that finite time period. Same with a symphony, a play, or a novel. If human existence is temporary, he would say, it gives weight and gravitas to what we decide to do with our short time here in this life. By contrast, he would say the Christian worldview strips our decisions of that weight, since one could live however he pleased in this life, have a deathbed conversion, and still end up having an eternal paradisiacal existence in heaven.
Coming at it another direction, I had a long discussion with a different non-believing friend over Pascal’s Wager. In his view, the “nothing to lose, everything to gain” card that Pascal claims for the Theist was actually in the Atheist’s hand. He saw things as follows: First, eternal existence of any sort, even in “heaven,” would be hellish. Here he spoke of things like the novelty of an experience containing its power for pleasure, and if existence is eternal in either heaven or hell, it can only result in boredom and apathy over an infinite amount of time. He says that even the Theist who believes s/he will be eternally satisfied in heaven will end up in boredom and apathy. Second, if Atheism is true, then both the Atheist and Theist get only non-existence after death. But the difference is that non-existence after death is exactly what the Atheist wants (at least in his case), while Theists fear and abhor the possibility of this outcome, and the Atheist ultimately gets more out of his/her earthly life because s/he believes and lives like this life is all there is. Therefore, it is the Atheist who ends up with the better end of the stick in Pascal’s Wager, in his view.
Obviously I disagreed with both points, but I am interested in hearing your thoughts on their points of view.
Yes. Some atheists say such things. I hope to reply to such thinking as the series progresses. In brief, the line of thought you document focuses on human survival after death. The existence of God and human survival after death are two different issues. If God exists, our lives could have objective meaning even if our time were limited to existence in the body. If God does not exist, our lives would possess no objective meaning even if we lived endlessly. In my view, the implications of the decision for materialism and death at this decision point are much more extensive than many atheists think. The “Death” of which I speak is not only the absence of mind and life at the foundation of reality, it is the constant awareness in anxiety of the meaninglessness of all our acts and the coming annihilation everything we love. If everything comes from death and returns to death, everything in between is consigned to death.
Thanks for reading the post! rh