At The Atheist Experience, I find a set of six ‘questions’ from Ravi Zacharias, an evangelical Christian apologist. Matt D. at Atheist Experience does a fine job on his own behalf and I commend his thoughts on the issues Zacharias raises to you. But I’m also offering my own stab at them, one that I hope is somewhat briefer while still being thoughtful enough to be meaningful.
1. If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions: Where did everything come from, and why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet, and is there any meaning to this life? Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier? If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, where do we look to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong? If you are content within an atheistic worldview, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?
Zacharias pumps a lot of questions into this single question. Fortunately, all of them are susceptible of brief answers:
- Where did everything come from? Science doesn’t know yet. And that’s OK.
- Why is there something rather than nothing? Science doesn’t know yet. And that’s OK.
- Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet? Because it evolved here.
- Is there any meaning to this life? The question implies the word “transcendent” as a modified to the word “meaning” and the answer is no, there is not. There is only the meaning that we pick for ourselves. If the modifier is “objective,” then yes, there is — the transmission and propagation of the chemical sequences known as “genes” within the deoxyribonucleic acid embedded within our cells.
- Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? False choice. Death is not necessarily the end of the human experience. Nor does death as the terminal experience of human existence (whether individual or collective) necessarily deprive that existence of meaning.
- How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier? Through reason, empathy, and experience.
- If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, where do we look to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong? See the immediately previous answer.
- If you are content within an atheistic worldview, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers? (Query as to the grammar here; an “atheistic worldview” is not a question, but I understand what he’s getting at — what would make an atheist previously comfortable with his atheism question it?) Substantial evidence of the existence of an interventionist supernatural entity, viz. a prayer-induced spontaneous regrowth of an amputated human limb.
The rest of Zacharias’ “questions” are really arguments:
2. If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning, so why don’t we see more atheists taking their worldview more seriously like Jean Paul Sartre, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Michel Foucault? These three atheists recognized that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. The experience of atheistic meaninglessness is recorded in Sartre’s book Nausea. Without God, these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.
Existentialism requires that you explain and justify your own existence on your own terms and not resort to hiding behind fictions like a supernatural overlord. It seems natural that you would sneer at existentialism if you do not possess such a justification for yourself and your actions. If, on the one hand, an atheistic world view necessarily has as its only transcencent meaning other than “one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes” then ultimately the justification for why one does action “X” is either the atheistic answer “because it pleased me to do so,” or the theistic answer “because I believed that it pleased God that I do so,” which ultimately is really the same thing as the atheistic answer because the theist takes pleasure in pleasing God. And who says that there aren’t a lot of atheists who take the existentialists seriously? Understanding existentialism, at any level of sophistication, does not require that one become joyless.
3. If people don’t believe in God, the historical results are horrific, so how do we deal with the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? Countless millions lost their lives under these godless regimes, regimes more influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch (superman) than they were by transcendent morality.
If people do believe in God, the historical results are also horrific. If you are going to lay some of (but not all of) the genocides of the twentieth century at the feet of atheism, then you must answer for a dozen or so Crusades launched by Christianity, dozens if not hundreds of jihads launched by Islam, hundreds of pre-Nazi pogroms against Jews across Europe, the riots of religion that separated Pakistan and Bangladesh from India, the Wars of the European Reformation, and debatably, the massive extermination partially unwittingly perpetrated on Native Americans by European conquerors, most of whom were motivated by the desire to spread Christianity to the New World. Violence and death are at least as much the result of the presence of religion as its absence.
And for the fifteen thousandth time, Hitler was not an atheist.
4. If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of it being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable, since no interventions in this life or reparations in an afterlife are possible. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. There is only madness and confusion in the face of suffering and evil.
This “question” presupposes that God is benevolent. If what you are concerned with is succor from suffering, then a malicious or even an indifferent deity is probably worse than no deity at all. And if what you are concerned with is succor from suffering, merely wanting a deity to provide that succor does not mean that such a deity really exists. I would like it very much if Santa Claus really did give toys and presents to good little boys and girls all over the world on Christmas Day. How marvelous that would be! But wanting it to be true does not make it so. In the original article, Matt D. points out also that succor is available from other people, and that the existence of suffering in a theistic universe raises questions about the true benevolence of God, which are also points worth considering.
5. If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong — really wrong? Where do those standards come from? Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.
This is simply another way of rephrasing Zacharias’ earlier question, “How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?” My answer remains the same: through reason, empathy, and experience. I’ll also add that religion (which is not necessarily the same thing as belief in God in this context) has been uses as the justification for every one of the historical evils Zacharias mentions in his question, and indeed more than that. Religion, therefore, is at least as much a perpetrator of evil as a force to ameliorate it. God’s existence (distinguished from religion) does not resolve the problem of evil, either, because we are left with Epicurus’ quatrain about God and evil:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?
To be sure, Epicurus is a way of rephrasing the classic issue of the problem of evil, but at least in this argument, Zacharias has not dealt with that issue in any meaningful way.
6. If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why I am so unfulfilled or empty? Why do I hunger for the spiritual? How do we deal with these questions if nothing can exist beyond the material world? Atheists, particularly atheistic scientists go way beyond their scientific training when they depart from the “how” questions to prognosticating about the “why” questions. Even terms like “natural selection” seems a misuse of words, since only an intelligent being can assess options and choose. How do we get laws out of luck, or predictable processes out of brute chance? If all that makes us different from animals is learning and altruism, why do the brutish still widely outnumber the wise in our world?
This question is packed to the gills with false premises. Even if there is no God, human beings make plenty of sense when understood for what they are: animals which are the current product of an ongoing process of evolution which has produced a confluence of self-awareness, tool-building, logical thought, long-term memory, and opposable digits as traits assisting survival of the organism. Like many apologists do, Zacharias again confuse the desired answer to a question with its premise. His desire for a transcendent purpose to life (which exists, or does not, independent of his desire for it to exist) is universalized, incorrectly; his lack of ability to imagine a world without such a transcendent purpose is universalized, incorrectly; his failure to discern that human existence, while perhaps more complex than that of a “lower” animal, is really no different than that of any other species of social animal, is universalized, incorrectly. Indeed, Zacharias presumes that free choice exists, which is a far from certain proposition and one of which I have grown increasingly dubious.
Boiled down to its essence, Zacharias basically argues with his six questions as follows: “Existence without God would be a horrifying absurdity, therefore, God must exist.” I can’t think of any facet of that proposition which can be intellectually redeemed.