I host a meetup group called “Crosstalk” where atheists, agnostics, and believers of various persuasions get together to talk about a variety of big ideas across ideological divides. The last meeting was a discussion of Allain de Botton’s TED talk on Atheism 2.0. His idea is that atheism is obviously true, so we should all get past that and think about what atheists might learn from thousands of years of religious practice. My idea for Crosstalk was to discuss not only what atheists might learn from religion, but also what religion might learn from atheists.
My main takeaway from the atheist side of the world is that atheists aim to view the world truthfully based on a rational evaluation of real evidence. They really mean to take the truth as it comes, good or bad. Their criticism of the religious is that we are not concerned with truth, but with myth, and that we twist our view of the world to fit our beliefs. Truth be told, I agree with this assessment.
However, there is a profound level of cognitive dissonance in the standard atheist position. The hallmark of the atheist viewpoint is rationality. Yet, if there is no supreme intelligence, no design, no rational plan at the root of existence, why would rationality be of any use in discerning the nature of things? If there is no designing intelligence, why would we look to the basic structure of space, time, matter, and energy, and expect to find patterns which can be rationally understood? Yet science is powerful because it is able to reduce complex phenomena down to simple and elegant explanations. We can use math to explain things! Isn’t this what science is – using rational thought to explain the physical universe? Yet if there is no designer, no rational plan, no teleology, why should rational thought work when explaining what we observe? If there is no designing intelligence behind it all, shouldn’t the universe be truly random? The reason why there is such a principle as “emergence” at all is that there is a pattern to things which is discernible through rational thought. The truth is, when we look, we don’t find random irrational undirected phenomena. We find order.
So we find that atheists begin to create myths to explain these things. They posit that the first living cell came to be because aliens seeded the earth. The aliens did not have time to evolve from primordial ooze on some other planet first because of the relatively young age of the universe – so they must have come from another dimension. The universe is finely tuned because there is a multiverse with many other universes which are not so finely tuned. The language of supposedly random adaptive evolution is filled with anthropomorphisms. These things are not the kinds of things that people who are in a reckless come-what-may pursuit of truth think about. These are not rational scientific explanations for things. Yet however crazy and ridiculous the explanation may be, simply because it excludes belief in a supreme intelligence, it is “rational.”
What we really find with the atheistic mindset is not a reckless abandon to the truth, but an irrational passion to cling to a metaphysical perspective. There is the underlying assumption that there is no designing intelligence at the root of things, and so everything must be interpreted as such. When we look, for example, at the Burgess shale or the Maotianshan shale fossil deposits in Canada and in China, we find similar evidence. There are plentiful examples of all kinds of small simple soft-tissued life that has been preserved, and then when we reach the Cambrian era we find an immediate non-gradual explosion of life. If there had been a gradual adaptive path, it would have been recorded in the deposits, because tiny soft-tissue life was preserved. Yet popular science ignores this and many other similar things, and continues to pretend that everyone who doubts darwinistic gradualism is an ignorant fool. They are increasingly unable to credibly maintain the rationalistic high ground when they ignore the preponderance of evidence.
The huge elephant in the room is that if the universe and everything in it came to be by undirected non-rational undesigned processes, then the one thing that must be excluded from the universe is the notion of mind. When we run experiments, we must be careful to keep our teleological fingers out of the pie, or we will spoil things. Yet, here we are: our defining characteristic as human beings is arguably our intelligence. Whereas our minds are not allowed to intrude into our interpretation of unplanned undirected nature, somehow our minds came to be. Scientists, indeed atheists, are clear that the main thing we must use to explain the undirected undesigned unplanned non-rational universe is our mind. Rationality is king. So how did the rational arise from that which is by definition not rationally directed?
Ironically, the drive to exclude the notion of rational design and to read rational patterns into what are supposed to be undirected undesigned non-rational processes is called “rational.” Yet why is it irrational to look at the clear evidence of a finely tuned universe exactly tweaked to support life, and the enormous information-rich complexity of life on earth down to the first living cell, and the existence of the human mind, and posit that there is a profound rational mind at the root of existence? The idea that there is a God is in fact the most rational position possible. Belief in God is in fact a direct belief in the rational.
As Alvin Plantinga points out, it is a popular misconception that science and atheism are handmaidens and that science and religion are at odds. I think we are increasingly finding that in fact the opposite is true. Belief in a designing intelligence at the root of existence is the only thing that really makes rational sense. Everyone who really has a passion for truth regardless of the implications must come around eventually to acknowledge this.