By Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.
Some time back, I was engaged in an online forum with some religious skeptics. Under discussion were the usual: the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, evidence for the resurrection, and so on. For the most part, the participants were civil and without the animus that has been far too typical of these exchanges.
After one of the discussions was gaveled, a person remarked on the intensity of the dialogue. It suggested something of real importance; maybe something of utmost importance. Just what, he couldn’t say.
I responded that it was the outrageous claims of a carpenter’s son. For a first century Jew, claiming equality with God and forgiving sins were blasphemies punishable by death. Even in our enlightened day, such behavior would be grounds for committal to a mental institution or dismissal as a megalomaniac or outright fraud. But with Jesus, there is the confounding issue of His teachings.
As C.S. Lewis once observed, even among critics, the teachings of Jesus reflect the highest standard of morality known to man. Because of their supreme quality, Jesus’ imperatives are best explained not as products of a deluded or duplicitous mind, but of an intellectually competent person who actually believed what He claimed to be true.
And there lies the rub.
If Jesus was right about His divinity, then man is not a morally autonomous happenstance; he’s a special creation, a being that will one day stand before his Creator. It is what Thomas Nagel, NYU law professor and self-described atheist, coined the “cosmic authority problem”:
It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…I hope there is no God…I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and is responsible for…the overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.
Note that Nagel’s disbelief is not grounded in a rational examination of how the world is but by the non-rational sensibility of how he feels the world should be. In this regard, Thomas Nagel is not alone.
Folks like Nagel take pride in being members of the “smart set” whose trust is in the omniscience of human reason. But press them ever so slightly and beneath the patina of intellectualism, you will find the non-cognitive: feelings, sentiments, and personal preferences.
“Dave” (not his real name) is a case in point. In an online exchange, I was surprised that Dave shamelessly accepted features of naturalism that lacked validation, or even a means of validation, while rejecting theism for those very reasons. When this inconsistency was pointed out, Dave responded, quite unapologetically, that at least his belief system didn’t require him to go to church, worship, pay tithes, or obey a rigid set of rules. When push came to shove, it was personal sentiments, not rational merit, that decided the question of God for Dave.
Dave criticized the morality of the Bible for promoting things like slavery, racism, the subjugation of women, and condemning children to Hell who have never heard of Jesus (never mind some seriously flawed hermeneutics here). He went on to contrast biblical morality—as has Richard Dawkins and other noted skeptics—against the Golden Rule.
Without realizing it, Dave fell headlong into the naturalistic fallacy: in a world created by colliding particles and shaped by natural selection, there is no right or wrong, only existence. If everything is a product of matter in motion, the “Will to Power,” not the Golden Rule, is the only life principle. It’s the natural conclusion of Darwinism that the totalitarian visionaries of the last century pursued with a vengeance.
That’s not to deny that religion has been a source of violence. But the casualties caused by Christians over twenty centuries dissolve in the shadow of those caused, in just one century, by atheistic regimes. So, despite what religious skeptics insist, the real danger of religion is not that it promotes violence, but that it takes away hope. Let me explain.
In 1945, Abraham Maslow published his famed hierarchy of human needs. According to Maslow’s ranking, physiological, safety, and social needs were on the bottom rung, with self-actualization or, as it was more commonly referred to, “finding oneself,” at the top.
Despite the lack of evidence for Maslow’s theory, self-actualization became the Holy Grail, and “free expression” and “choice” the seductive marketing hooks for a navel-gazing public. It didn’t take long for Madison Avenue to pick up pop psychology and promise self-discovery to all who affirmed self, followed their instincts, and carried American Express.
But Jesus said that our deepest need is not in finding self, but in knowing God—by denying self, following Christ and carrying one’s cross. He went on to insist that salvation—whether from existential ennui or righteous judgment—is not attainable by human effort but only by a divine gift. What a blow to our personal autonomy! What an affront to our self-esteem!
For those convinced that happiness is found in the sacred quest of self-discovery, nothing could be more threatening. To those trusting in the perfectibility of man and his environment, Jesus is the supreme bogeyman.
We inhabit a planet scarred by poverty, disease, crime, pollution, and violence. If there is no God, these problems are left to man and his ingenuity to solve.
Over the last two hundred years, man has been phenomenally successful in harnessing nature through the application of materialistic science. This has led to unbridled confidence that man, through science, will one day overcome the health, social, and environmental obstacles to a utopian existence.
But as atheist Sam Harris warned in an essay titled “Science Must Destroy Religion,” “the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.” Harris’s warning is clear. If science is our savior, then anything that impedes it is a threat to our future hope.
For instance, Christian doctrines about the sanctity of human life are hindrances to the scientist who seeks cures through research on embryonic stem cells, the mentally incapacitated, the terminally ill, or prisoners. The same goes for the social researcher who believes that population control is essential for socio-economic health and the investigator who believes that the gnawing questions of our existence will be answered in the quest for extraterrestrial life.
To those whose ultimate hope is in the limitless potential of man through science, Christianity is a danger more menacing than the Black Plague or runaway global warming. Consequently, Harris frets that “Iron Age beliefs—about God, the soul, sin, free will, etc.—continue to impede medical research and distort public policy.”
To meet the threat, Harris urges the scientific community to blast “the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.” Once religion and faith are vanquished by reason and science, Sam Harris envisions that:
the practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu [will] be broadly recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.
Mr. Harris would be wise not to bet the farm on his hope. According to an Authority I trust, the Church will not only prevail over all who would rout her; she will advance…even against the gates of Hell.