Atheism, Evidence, and Pre-Commitments

We all know of angry atheists and belligerent misotheists. Richard Dawkins is of course a prime example of this. But there are some atheists who are more humble, more open to truth, and more willing to abandon shibboleths, even if very unpopular to do so.

One such atheist is respected philosopher Thomas Nagel of New York University. He has penned a number of important volumes on philosophy, and his newest is causing no small stir. In his very important new book, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford, 2012), he has the courage to admit that the evidence is not looking good for reductionistic naturalism.

Given that this is the default worldview of almost all atheists, this is quite a radical stance to be taking. Yet he is brave enough to go where very few atheists are willing to travel. His book takes head-on the reigning materialist paradigm, and in the process, takes heavy swipes at the neo-Darwinian position. Let me offer a few quotes:

“I believe there are independent empirical reasons to be skeptical about the truth of reductionism in biology. Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. … It is 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. We are expected to abandon this naive response not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples” (pp. 5-6).

“My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. That is especially true with regard to the origin of life.  … I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science” (p. 7).

“I have argued patiently against the prevailing form of naturalism, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension. . . . I find this view antecedently unbelievable – a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. . . . I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two” (p. 128).

It would seem that with such a strong case being made against the naturalistic worldview, the acceptance of the clear alternative would be part of his case. But unfortunately that is not so – he still dismisses theism as much as he does reductionist materialism:

“Even if the dominance of materialist naturalism is nearing an end, we need some idea of what might replace it. . . . Materialism requires reductionism; therefore the aim is not so much to argue against reductionism as to investigate the consequences of rejecting it – to present the problem rather than to propose a solution” (p. 15).

He briefly examines theism, and sees its clear benefits over reductionistic materialism, but still finds it wanting: “neither evolutionary naturalism nor theism provides the kind of comprehensive self-understanding that we are after”. (p. 29). But the question remains why he finds theism not up to the task here.

Could it be that he does not want it to be that way? This is not a matter of speculation. He has actually told us this in his earlier works. For example, back in 1997 he confessed in The Last Word to a “fear of religion itself.” He went on to say,

“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: 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. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.”

The candour here is greatly appreciated. At the end of the day he does not want theism to be true. In this he simply has said what many other atheists have said: they are atheists because they simply do not like the alternative. It is not so much because of the evidence, or lack of it, but because of an a priori commitment.

They simply do not want to believe. Of course for the theist, this is quite understandable. Indeed, for the Christian, this has already been discussed millennia ago. Jesus himself said that people will not come to faith in him, because of their lifestyle: they are living a life of darkness, and coming to the light exposes the evil in a man’s heart – that is why people refuse to come to faith (John 3:19-21).

Paul says the same thing in Romans 1. People “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” as he puts it in 1:18. Ravi Zacharias puts it this way: “A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God.”

Or as R.C. Sproul says in his 1978 volume, If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists?: “The question of the existence of and nature of God is a question attended by a host of vested interests. If we are to examine the question with integrity, we must both recognize and face the implications of our vested interests. If we refuse to do that, then truth will perish, and so will we.”

Everyone has vested interests, and everyone has reasons why they do not want to acknowledge God and his rightful rule in our lives. Nagel has been honest enough to admit that he simply does not like the idea of God; therefore he refuses to embrace it – and Him.

He rightly sees that the main alternative – naturalistic neo-Darwinism – is problematic indeed, but he refuses to bow to the only reasonable alternative. But again, we can appreciate his openness here. As believers we can pray for him. Like another famous atheist, he might just one day renounce his atheism.

Antony Flew did this not so long ago, and in large part this came about because of the evidence being presented by the Intelligent Design theorists. That evidence compelled him to renounce his atheism and at least embrace deism. Had he remained alive longer he might even have become a Christian.

Nagel too offers his indebtedness to ID: “I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years from a religious perspective by the defenders of intelligent design. Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves” (p. 10).

Flew, following Socrates, said he had to “follow the evidence wherever it would lead”. It is hoped that Nagel will as well. But as stated, at the end of the day, the issue is not so much intellectual as moral and spiritual. Nagel has already admitted to this.

It is hoped that he and other atheists will be open enough, honest enough, and humble enough to indeed follow the evidence where it may lead, even if it means acknowledging the rightful King of the Universe, and renouncing any claims to that throne.

As R.C. Sproul said, “The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural hostility to the being of God.”

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