At the risk of thoroughly alienating some potential readers, I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Despite my physics background, I am not an atheist, though I was one—and a “hard” atheist at that, one who would almost certainly have quit reading the blog of an avowed theist had there been blogs back then—throughout most of my adult life. I well remember my mindset as an atheist, though it is absolutely foreign to me now, and I look back at those decades with some wonderment at how I stayed stuck so long in what I now see as an immature world view, which I stumbled into during my adolescence.
I, as many do in those years of immaturity, made some bad decisions back in high school. First I joined the Cool Sophisticates’ Club (open to all cigarette smokers without further accomplishment) and a little later The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club (one of whose main requirements was a rejection of all religion and any belief in a Creator). I think I was fortunate that there was no functioning Cool Drug Users’ Club at my high school back in those days, though the possibly even more dangerous Wild and Crazy Beer Drinkers’ Club was definitely taking in members. I’m not sure The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club had any other members in my high school, but I could read (Bertrand Russell, for example), so I knew it existed, and I was ready to claim my place in it, especially as I had just discovered (and greatly overestimated the extent of its explanatory power) physics.
I was able to get beyond the idea of cigarette smoking as a cool thing to do (even if Sartre, Brando, and James Dean all smoked) in a few years and, after about a year of trying to quit, finally escaped the notoriously strong hold which nicotine has on those addicted to it. But my addiction to the view that science can explain everything worth considering proved to have more staying power than nicotine’s chemical changes to my brain. Part of the difference was, I think, that, while I came to see that membership in the Cool Sophisticates’ Club, in addition to bringing serious health hazards, really carried no cachet, since any punk with half a dollar could join it, The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club maintained its elite, even heroic, status in my mind.
Someday I may trace on these pages (if I may call them that) my path to recognizing that our universe is created and meaningful. Given my intellectual approach to things, it was certainly a more purely reasoned and rational path than most people would take; which is not to say that it was at the end merely a logical conclusion with no mystical component. So the story may be of interest to others.
Today, however, I feel moved to look back at a couple of statements made by famous atheists, which, when I first read them, found great favor with me as being wonderfully eloquent. I somehow felt pride at being able to join with these highly intelligent and bravely defiant men in facing the reality of the meaninglessness of the universe, while inwardly mocking those who took the cowardly, intellectually weak way out: religious mystification and consolation. Of course, I have a very different response to them now.
The first passage to which I refer was written by Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist whose work on unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces of subatomic interactions was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. Weinberg, in addition to his contributions to theoretical physics, has written several books that attempt to explain new physics discoveries to the general educated public. One of his most famous works in this line was The First Three Minutes, which dealt with physicists’ understanding of what took place immediately after the initial singularity or big bang (or moment of creation or beginning of time) from which our universe seems to have sprung into being.
In the Epilogue of this book Weinberg writes the following (speaking at first of our beautiful Earth): “It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.”
Weinberg is a very good writer, and I recommend his books both for the science and the writing. But let us critically consider this passage of his. First comes his dismay that, from what we can tell, life must be very rare in the universe. The thought of all that vast space devoid of the conditions for life is evidently depressing to him, but that is a personal view, not something everyone must feel of necessity. If God created the Heavens and the Earth, this is the Earth and everything else is the Heavens. Consider the wonders of what we have here, whether or not we are the unique home to life!
Then comes his reference to the “unspeakably unfamiliar early condition.” What should we expect from the moments after creation? Isn’t there cause for joy that we have been able to arrive at a reasonable scenario for that almost unimaginable period of time, rather than depression that it is so strange to us?
Future extinction? We know that each of us faces personal extinction in this material world already. That the universe may (and we are extrapolating from incomplete knowledge) also have an end, or an end to its life-supporting time, is depressing from the purely materialist viewpoint to some minds, but is it inherently depressing? Weinberg sees the continuation of life or, in truth, conscious, intelligent life, into the indefinite future as the main criterion for there being (just possibly) purpose to the universe. I wonder if the reason why the prospect of an end to all life in the universe seems so hard to Weinberg is that psychologically it makes our own end seem even more final. Perhaps it is just a transference of sadness over personal mortality to that of the universe. I might add that, whatever beliefs a theist may have about personal survival, God’s eternal existence is not in question.
From my current perspective, it seems obvious that hoping to find purpose in mere matter is bound to lead to disappointment. Weinberg is trying to read the universe as one reads tea leaves, searching for meaning in quarks and galaxies, but he seems to be excluding in advance the existence of a Creator as an outcome of this interpretation, thereby eliminating the only possible source of purpose. Weinberg sees the scarcity and precariousness of life as a sign of pointlessness. In Weinberg’s view, the briefness of life’s candle in the universe, makes human life in essence farcical, with scientific research offering the only meager, perhaps illusory, hope of temporary transcendence. Thus he rejects the mere existence of any conscious life existing at all as evidence for meaning, though I see this is as clearly a matter of personal opinion and interpretation.
At the time I first read it, I think I took Weinberg’s statement (and the words that follow it) as a powerful upholding of the materialist viewpoint and an admirable way of responding to its hard realities. Now I see that the only argument that could be extracted from it is circular, as it assumes materialism from the beginning. Within this materialist context, a single finite creature examines the universe from the standpoint of his own personal preferences and finds that the universe fails to match his hopes, which he takes as proof that there is no purpose to the universe. And it is only this perceived lack of purpose that could be used as an argument for the materialist view, already assumed.
It may be reasonable to think that the creation of moral, rational beings was one of the purposes, or even the purpose, for the creation of the universe, but a human being is overstepping the bounds of competence in rendering judgment on the whole project of creation based on personal feelings about whether the universe should continue to support material life eternally. And what is Weinberg getting at anyway? Does the idea of a purpose without a mind and agent behind it make sense at all? It seems that Weinberg is actually trying to see signs of God in the universe; but he has auditioned God and rejected Him as not suiting the part.
The second quotation comes from Richard Dawkins, the well-known biologist and author of popular books explaining natural selection and evolution from a strongly anti-teleogical standpoint (e.g., The Blind Watchmaker) and, more recently, a spokesman and propagandist for atheism (The God Delusion).
Here is what Dawkins wrote in a Scientific American article in 1995: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. …In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
Whoa, Richard, hold on. Precisely the properties? I can imagine universes much more devoid of obvious design or purpose. What about one with only empty dark space: no matter and no light? What about one in which stars never ignite? What if the physical laws were changing all the time, so that nothing could persist, nothing were predictable? Yes, but there would be no pain and suffering in those empty universes, and that is really Dawkins’s only point.
While Weinberg is downhearted over the insufficient friendliness of the universe to life in both space and time, Dawkins, the life scientist, sees the existence of life as it actually is as a conclusive argument against purpose and good and evil. Beyond the suffering, Dawkins doesn’t seem to like chance and contingency at all, which is somewhat surprising given the supreme role it plays in his view of evolution and its wonderful results. But I gather he finds evolution by natural selection as being in itself an argument against God for the reason that any God worth his salt wouldn’t leave things to painful chance that way. Curiously, on this point he thus finds himself in agreement with religious fundamentalists who use it as an argument against evolution!
Dawkins surveys our universe of beautiful order, as seen in its physical laws and the immensely complex phenomena that flow from them—including the production of thinking creatures such as Dawkins himself—and then implies that if he were God, he would surely have done things differently. I gather he would have avoided all animal suffering and the eating of one animal by another. He is not the first to wish for this, but does the existence of animal suffering really show there is “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good?” Or does the notion of good and evil only apply to moral creatures such as ourselves? Is Dawkins not trying to impose his own idea of morality to the whole animal kingdom?
Dawkins is really wishing for Heaven on Earth, isn’t he? The ultimate materialist seems to be longing for a purely spiritual existence in which eating and dying don’t occur. In some circles such beings are known as Angels. Or perhaps there should be only vegan animals that live forever. That is an Edenic vision. Yes, Dawkins has a particular bone to pick with God: he doesn’t like animal suffering or anything involving chance accidents that harm the good as well as the bad or even give better genes to one individual than to another. Starting from his perception of “pitiless indifference,” he extrapolates to “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” How can one even speak of good and evil if the concepts have no meaning in this universe? Dawkins goes well beyond Weinberg in his willingness to judge Creation.
Both Weinberg and Dawkins are turning their backs on God basically because they find fault with Creation: Weinberg because it seems life won’t last forever and Dawkins because of animal suffering. There can be no God because this universe offends me in certain ways is what they seem to be saying. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth! Actually, I shouldn’t say they are turning their backs on God because of these perceived shortcomings of the universe. They, as I did, very likely banished God from their lives without giving it much thought at an early age. Now they are finding reasons to maintain their world view; and it is good to remember the distinction.
Why did I particularly remember these two statements? I think I know. They are both examples of how deep the spiritual pit can be for a materialist that thinks a lot about such matters as purpose in the universe. I too was one of those. These men both find that the universe is far different from their ideal one They use the perceived defects in Creation as their argument against a Creator. This goes well beyond “I see no evidence for God” or “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
No, these critiques are from men who are deeply disappointed in their failure to discern purpose in the universe, though this is bound to be the result of confining their search to the materialist context. Based on my own experience, I have to think that they are yearning for God, even as they resist turning to God, and even rail against belief in God, which they see as irrational, just as I now know I was yearning when I found their indictments of Creation praiseworthy. Purpose cannot be pulled out of the material universe without reference to a Creator whose power and wisdom, by very virtue of their being the Creator’s, are beyond question.
So what about suffering? That there are some things beyond the limits of our understanding is something we must humbly accept. Those who believe in God do not demand that God satisfy their personal criteria for perfection in the universe, but recognize the great disparity between creature and creator in understanding, wisdom, and power. I think the immense disparity–infinite disparity—between creature and Creator is the hardest thing for an atheist to imagine and appreciate. It really has to be experienced. This disparity is expressed poetically in an ancient text (Isaiah 55:8-9) thusly: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
I think that in originally accepting both Weinberg’s and Dawkins’s statements as exemplary, I was looking for and finding support from prestigious sources for my world view, with which my very self seemed inextricably entwined after so many years. Weinberg is one of us! I should have known that a man of such brilliance would agree with me on the subject of God and purpose. This of course confirmed once again that I was indeed a member of The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club. Beyond that, I have come to realize during the course of writing this piece, I took heart from the authors’ being able to carry on in the world under the burden of purposeless mortality.
I recall a conversation my wife had with one of my son’s sixth grade teachers, an atheist who, as most atheists probably are, was puzzled at the persistence of the superstitious, as he saw it, belief in God. I think more out of curiosity than through a desire to convert the students to his unspoken view on the subject, he had had them write briefly on why they thought people believed in God. In discussing this exercise with him my wife had told the teacher that I wasn’t an atheist, which he had naturally found surprising since he knew I was a physicist. She told him a little about my conversion and that I thought theism was more reasonable than atheism. This revelation evidently made him consider in a theoretical way the possibility, perhaps for the first time, that he might change his own mind on the subject. He said, “I don’t know how I could deal with that. My atheism is so much a part of who I am. I wouldn’t want that.”
Our strongly held beliefs, including our negative ones, are a major part of who we think we are. Weinberg and Dawkins were helping to reinforce my sense of self and the pride I could take in it. My son’s teacher was saying that even if he were wrong on the most important question of all, that of God’s existence, he would rather not change his mind because the attendant psychic adjustment would be too great. I doubt that he was really admitting the possibility that he might be wrong, but only thinking about how utterly different his outlook would be were he to change his mind on the ultimate question. In other words, he feared the mutilation of his self beyond recognition. For myself, during decades as an atheist, the only reason I could have imagined for my adopting theism at some point in the future would have been insanity.
When I was addicted to smoking, every cigarette I smoked not only kept my physical addiction going; it also helped reinforce my image of myself as a smoker; and, of course, the world can be divided along smoker and non-smoker lines just as along atheist and theist lines. I believe there was a similar dual reinforcement of my habit of thought at work in my reading of atheistic writing by authors I admired. I find it very plausible that statements like those by Weinberg and Dawkins may have served the function of maintaining a kind of downright physical addiction to the atheistic outlook. I certainly took pleasure in reading them far beyond what was justified by the content, which, as we’ve seen, was deeply pessimistic in tone and without value as argument. Thus there was probably something chemical going on in my brain that I liked and would want to have repeated.
Just as smokers continue to light up in order to relieve the anxiety brought about by the onset of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, so that the main purpose in the drug’s use becomes preventing the negative psychological effects of the addiction itself; so did I find comfort in reading such statements, though small comfort, from the ever present sense of despair that came with my bleak view of the universe as a place without meaning.
I would like to encourage any atheist that’s read this far to consider this one thing: whether or not God exists to give a purpose to the universe and our lives is the most important philosophical and personal question we have to answer correctly in our brief time of life. Were you raised an atheist or did you come, as I did, to atheism before reaching intellectual maturity? If so, then you may want to re-examine that step you took. Throughout history and into our own times there have been many “truly smart people,” who have recognized God’s existence, and their conclusions should not be dismissed out of hand. I’m speaking of scientifically literate people to whom the idea that God is a substitute for science applies not at all.
The question of God’s existence deserves deep investigation and thought and not casual dismissal for lack of scientific “evidence,” when the very nature of such hypothetical conclusive evidence is never even postulated. Can you imagine what the scientific evidence for God would look like? If not then perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction and not seriously looking at all. If there is some single phenomenon in the world (the suffering of innocents, for example) that prevents your even considering God’s existence, try to put it aside for the time being.
If the evidence you demand is something in the nature of a direct communication from God, then you are speaking of revelation, not sharable evidence. Keep in mind also that hostility to belief in God often becomes hostility to God. Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point. Only a miracle will satisfy you? Just remember that if God exists, you are not in a position relative to the Creator to set the terms of your enlightenment.
Also, keep in mind that if God exists, then so does the spiritual realm; for God is not material. Thus a categorial dismissal of the spiritual right from the outset is already a renunciation of the inquiry. If we are spiritual creatures as well as material, then internal evidence may need to be considered also, even though it is not objective in the sense that you could guarantee the same experience to another under the same conditions.
Evidence can be material or circumstantial. The law recognizes that circumstantial evidence can lead to certainty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps there is circumstantial evidence to be considered in the question of God’s existence? There is. A book that made a strong (decisive, really, coming when it did) impression on me was by John Polkinghorne (a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest) entitled Belief in God in an Age of Science. It is of course written from a Christian standpoint, but the main arguments are for a Creator God without reference to scripture but only to the observable facts of the universe. Polkinghorne is a prime example of a “truly smart” theist. Of course, for an atheist to accept God’s existence requires him or her to drink long from the cup of humility, which comes with recognizing that oh so many “dumb” people have been correct on the most important question of existence all along.
Will strong circumstantial evidence satisfy you? There’s no way to answer that question in advance. From my own experience I can say that becoming convinced intellectually can lead to an opening of the heart from which certainty comes. And, in my experience, the nature of that certainty is very different from and stronger than the anxious and despairing lack of hope I felt as an atheist. The recognition of God as the Creator is not the end of the journey, far from it. With that awesome recognition comes the exciting responsibility of figuring out what that means for one’s own life.
My own evolution from atheist to theist took many years, and I was not consciously open on the question until near the end of that time. There’s no turning back the clock, but I feel very blessed that I didn’t die before I changed. I recommend to anyone at all open to the quest for God to try to become yet more open. If you are looking for Truth you are already on the right path.