Fact one: Thomas Nagel is an atheist. As he’s made clear on many occasions, he wants to be an atheist. As he said, famously, in The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Fact two: Thomas Nagel is brave enough to have a clear and critical look at one of the great intellectual supports of modern atheism, the neo-Darwinian account of nature. He has found it “prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.”
Sorrows, because they are lingering guests, I will entertain but moderately, knowing that the more they are made of the longer they will continue: and for pleasures, because they stay not, and do but call to drink at my door, I will use them as passengers with slight respect. He is his own best friend that makes the least of both of them.
In the pride of his face, the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” (Psalm 10:4 ESV)
Atheism is like spending too much time looking in the mirror; in the reflection, there is only room for one person – self. Life without God is the kingdom of self. I must admit here that I was an atheist for many years before becoming a Christian. I can testify that I once lived a life centered totally on myself and I am still a work in progress.
Let us take a moment to define “atheism”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “atheism” as “Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God …” Disbelief in God is driven by the overwhelming desire to be personally in control and accountable to no one. It is a powerful motivation for suppressing the truth of God. (Romans 1:18) The natural (sinful) man prefers to set up his own standards of righteousness.
The sin of atheism is all bound up in the wickedness of irrational pride. We wish to be the center of all things. Therefore, as the center of my universe, I cannot tolerate a god more powerful than I am. A self-centered man cannot abide a deity to whom he is accountable. William E. Henley spoke of such a person when he penned the words, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
Thus, the pride of life drives men to “suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:18-21) Atheism requires a cycle of censorship to support its self-assurance. The sin of pride is the impetus to deny any truth that supports the existence of God.
Therefore, atheism is not a morally neutral position. To deny God, is to deny the moral foundation of the rights and dignity of man. Think about this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men had forgotten God; that is why all this has happened.’”
In John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem, Paradise Lost, Satan attempts to seize control of heaven from God. Satan claims that the angels are “self-begot” (Evolution?) and he denies God’s authority as Creator over them. Because of his rebellion, Satan and his followers are cast down to hell. Here, Satan speaks that often quoted line: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Is it, really? Atheism demands the answer, “Yes!” This viewpoint, however, has led to very unhappy consequences in Russia, China, and North Korea – among many other nations. For the individual, the consequences are reaped in this world and the next when men forget God.
Atheism will be humiliated and abandoned one day before the terrifying judgment of the one holy omnipotent God. His justice will demand that, “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” (Isaiah 2:11)
God can and does speak to unbelievers through reason, beauty, moral failure, and the existence of evil. As a cloud of apologetical witnesses can testify, God has used philosophical arguments for his existence, scientific supports for the universe’s beginning (Big Bang) and its fine-tuning, and historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus to assist people in embracing Christ—just as God uses the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16) or the loving character of a Christian community (John 13:35). These are all part of the holistic witness to the reality of God and the gospel, all of which the Spirit of God can use to lead unbelievers to embracing Jesus Christ.
Isaac Newton, English mathematician and scientist:
“We account the scriptures of God to be the most sublime philosophy. I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane history whatsoever.”
Everyone who doubts knows that he is doubting, so that he is certain of this truth at least, namely the fact that he doubts. Thus every one who doubts whether there is such a thing as truth, knows at least one truth, so that his very capacity to doubt should convince him that there is such a thing as truth.
The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.
Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on [in ignorance].
Having once been an atheist myself, I find the accounts of those atheists who ultimately reject atheism and find faith in God very interesting. One such account is that of Andrew Norman Wilson, an English essayist, journalist, author of satiric novels of British society and of scholarly biographies.
Wilson attended New College, Oxford, began a teaching career, and spent a year training for the priesthood before deciding to concentrate on writing. During this time, he became an ardent atheist. He has composed essays on religion and contributed regularly to several London newspapers.
In April 2009, Wilson wrote a personal account, “Why I Believe Again”, in the New Statesman. In it, he explained his final rejection of atheism. The following contains excerpts from that article:
A materialist Darwinian was having dinner with me a few years ago and we laughingly alluded to how, as years go by, one forgets names. Eager, as committed Darwinians often are, to testify on any occasion, my friend asserted: “It is because when we were simply anthropoid apes, there was no need to distinguish between one another by giving names.”
This credal confession struck me as just as superstitious as believing in the historicity of Noah’s Ark. More so, really.
Do materialists really think that language just “evolved”, like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where is the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery, which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. . . .
When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. . . .
[O]ne thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realizing how utterly incoherent were Hitler’s neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer’s serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.
My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God “a category mistake”. Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . ‘The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’.” And then Coleridge adds: “‘And man became a living soul.’ Materialism will never explain those last words.”
Like Chuck Colson, I believe that “Faith and reason are not enemies.” Reason is just as much a gift from God as faith. Many have simply found that Christianity is the most rational explanation of reality. A. N. Wilson seems to have discovered this in his life’s journey as I have in mine.
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In the face of this modern nihilism, Christians are often lacking in courage. We tend to give the impression that we will hold on to the outward forms whatever happens, even if god really is not there. But the opposite ought to be true of us, so that people can see that we demand the truth of what is there and that we are not dealing merely with platitudes. In other words, it should be understood that we take the question of truth and personality so seriously that if God were not there we would be among the first of those who had the courage to step out of the queue.
Sir Fred Hoyle:
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintendent has monkeyed with the physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. I do not believe that any physicist who examined the evidence could fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce within stars.
“The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books – a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.”
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Dostoevsky is credited with saying that “Without God, everything is permitted.” So without God, doing something immoral would be an illusion – even nonsense, or something merely unfashionable. All moral statements would be arbitrary. Atheists cannot escape the problem that without God, whoever has the most political power determines what is moral. As put by William Lane Craig, “Thus, if atheism is true, it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, or love as good.”
We may disagree with the content and approach of the New Atheists, but we should be grateful for the chance to engage these issues with a culture that is paying closer attention than any time in recent history.