Trying To Explain Away God

There have been plenty of attempts to explain away God. This is to be expected, since fallen man refuses to admit that he is not the centre of the universe, and is not the final arbiter of truth and error, right and wrong. But mankind in rebellion will always seek to repress their innate knowledge of God, and invent ways of explaining him away.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this 2000 years ago of course. In Romans 1:18-23 he says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

Or as we read in Psalm 14:1 (and 53:1): “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” So life for the non-believer is one long attempt to seek to eradicate God. Of course it can no more be done than trying to wish away the sun. It really is the attempt of fools, but they keep on trying.

There have been plenty of ways in which atheists and naturalists have sought to explain away God. Marx for example said that religion was simply the opiate of the masses. It is like a drug, and keeps them contented with their oppression in this life, knowing a better life awaits them. It is all pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.

Freud offered this take on the origins of religion: people are afraid of the awesome power and destructive forces of nature, so they invented a god postulate to help tame nature and to help people cope. The impersonal forces of nature are personalized and brought under control (we say there are personal spirits in the wind, the storms, etc). These animistic spirit-powers led eventually to monotheism he said.

Others, like Nietzsche and Feuerbach, said similar things. Religion is just a way humans cope with their psychological needs. Religious beliefs have come about in order to satisfy deep psychological and emotional needs. God is just a projection of man, said Feuerbach, and Nietzsche also viewed belief in God as mere wish-fulfilment.

But then there have been a number of more recent naturalistic accounts of religion and belief in God based on biology and/or genetics. For example, back in 2004 an issue of Time magazine had a rather bizarre cover story about the “God gene”. At the same time Dean Hamer wrote the book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes.

Uber-atheist Richard Dawkins of course also took this line, and even invented a whole new word for it: “memes”. According to Dawkins, a meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene. They replicate ideas and beliefs. Thus the idea of God is like a virus: it is passed along and replicated in culture, just as physical traits (in the form of DNA) are passed along by means of genes.

There you have it folks. Simple. Why didn’t we think of this a long time ago? Such a clever and profound idea! But of course we have a slight problem here. Such a notion must cut both ways. If the beliefs of believers can simply be explained away by memes, then of course the beliefs of unbelievers must also be explained away in the same fashion.

In other words, if there is no sound reason for belief in God, there is no sound reason for disbelief in God. Both are simply the products of our genetic makeup. So one can no more argue for the plausibility or desirability of atheism than one can for theism.

If everything is determined by our genes and memes, that is just the way it is, and it does no good trying to argue for one belief system over against another. Indeed, that is the problem with all naturalistic explanations of beliefs, of ideas, of the mind, of consciousness, and so on.

If all thought and rationality is merely the result of natural processes, why should we commit to any of it, or believe any of it? As usual, C.S. Lewis was well on top of this quite some time ago. Three quotes from three of his books are worth presenting here:

“If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us – like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our own conviction that Nature is uniform” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles).

“But if naturalism were true, then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock).

“Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe, and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning” (Mere Christianity).

But this has not stopped the atheists as they keep on trying to come up with new ways to debunk God. A brand new book rehashes these old arguments, and tries again – unsuccessfully I think – to make the atheism case. The fact that Dawkins wrote the foreword to this book is of course unsurprising.

I will let Matthew Cullinan Hoffman pick up the rest of the story: “The ranks of celebrity atheists lionized by the major media is now being joined by a psychiatrist and journalist who have jointly written the book “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.” The two authors claim, in short, that God is nothing more than a figment of our biologically-determined imaginations.”

He continues, “The authors then pull the old trick of 19th century German atheists like Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche , and Freud, who never made any attempt to answer the historic arguments for the existence of God, and instead threw out the red herring of psychological, economic, and biological explanations for religion. The assumption is that if you can explain the origins of a belief, you have somehow refuted it, a silly non-sequitur that only serves to remind us of the impotency of the atheist’s position.

“Thomson and Aukofer take the biological route, claiming that we are genetically hard-wired to believe in God because it served our ancestors as a survival mechanism. ‘Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection,’ they claim. ‘They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past’.”

He concludes, “The questions they leave begging, however, speak more about their own psychology than anything else. If evolutionary biology explains man’s belief in God, how do we explain the authors’ atheism? Do they claim to be supermen who, unlike the rest of us, can transcend their own natures?  If religion can be explained by our genes, would the same not be true of atheism? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

“Reducing man’s ideas to his biology, in fact, destroys the foundation of all knowledge. If our ideas are determined by our genes, then how can we know if anything we believe is true? Such refutations were long ago leveled against the muddled thinking of materialists, but the authors, confused by the crude empiricist errors of modern scientism, apparently are unaware of the historic debate. Ignorance of the history of ideas is a woefully common trait among atheists.”

But any silly belief seems to be preferred by these guys than to actually acknowledge God’s existence. They keep coming up with one bizarre and whacky theory after another to make their case. Sorry guys, but I just don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.

[1481 words]

13 Replies to “Trying To Explain Away God”

  1. Thanks, Bill.
    Your presentation highlights two things about militant atheists (or misotheists as you more correctly call them).
    1. The more they try to explain God away the more they paint themselves into a deterministic corner from which there is no escape, especially not for themselves.

    2. If determinism be true, then there is no way of ever knowing it to be true. In fact, the very “knowing” process and status is shot to pieces. We are just biochemical machines at best, and that is that.

    A Broader Comment
    Such logical and philosophical points as those above, long known to and realized by astute thinkers, are lost on these self-vaunted crusaders. We truly live in an age where not only morality, art, and literature have all but perished, but science and philosophy have also fallen on evil days. In fact, we live at the end of an era of 2500 years of philosophic and scientific inquiry, and all we have at the end of it all is the dogmatic dictum of post-modernism that “knowledge is impossible” and “no-one has access to absolute truth”, which is a self-contradiction (the post-modernist knows that, does he?).

    But taking the post-modern dictum at its face value, it means that all the achievements of Western science, built on the foundations of Christianity, as numerous philosophers of science have shown, are now to be thrown away, into the restless sea of relativistic mush. Meanwhile, we go back to superstition, as we see in the various brands of “New Age” ideas. The hubristic tirades of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are merely negative; all they are achieving is a destruction of Western civilization with nothing to fill the void. Meanwhile, the neo-pagans and their idolatrous superstitions will appeal increasingly to the masses.

    Murray R. Adamthwaite

  2. Bill, a long time ago, I was sitting in the beautiful grounds of UWA with a friend I had known nearly all of my life. He, he excitedly told me, had decided, despite attending church all of his life with his parents and grandparents (he had been an altar boy, both his father and grandfather had been sacrostans) that he was an atheist. I asked him why. He had also become a member of the University Communist Club, and it was then, for the first time, I heard the old Marxist saw:”Religion is an opiate for the masses”. I said that I really didn’t believe that, so he said:”Prove to me there is a God!” I didn’t think the words before I said them but, out of my mouth came the words:”You prove to me that there isn’t a God!” He sat there for a while. but nothing more was said. He got up and said “See you!” And I never saw him again. I now use those God-given words whenever anyone tries to convince me that intelligent people question EVERYTHING, especially God.

    At the time when Thomson and Co were making their case for ‘hard-wired’ faith in individuals, I was reminded of something that Mother Julian of Norwich once wrote: “There is a God sized hole in every person’s soul that nothing else can fill. If it remains unfilled then that person’s life remains unfulfilled.”

    Whatever the reason I have faith, I am eternally grateful that I have it, and that it never leaves me even in the hardest of times!

    Kenya Lee Lowther

  3. In my years now as a Christian, many of the challenges by atheists and those antagonistic to the Gospel that I used to find difficult to explain, have over time by and large melted away as the irrationality of those views became more and more apparent.

    One of the silliest I find now is the accusation to God that He is morally evil because of the existence of hell. But if you analyse the accusation, you realise the argument can only be formed by someone who has consciously rejected God’s free offer of salvation. Someone who has accepted the offer is grateful to God for having rescued them from a hopeless situation when He did not have to do it. But worse still for these armchair God-accusers, is if they really did care about the eternal fate of others (the source of their so-called ‘moral’ outrage), why would they not help them hear and respond to the Gospel themselves? By their own accusation, they are doubly condemned. They have rejected the free and undeserved gift of life, and they did not tell others.

    God is infinitely ahead of these people in both logic and love, and I wish they would just open their eyes for once to realise how pathetic and even hateful their ideas are. It doesn’t matter if it is insipid claims about Jesus not really dying, or the body being stolen – or the universe being created from nothing all by itself. It all just boils down to one thing – adolescent attempts to shake fists at the Creator that are just petulant acts against a vastly superior intellect that has blindsided them from before time began. It is analogous to a rank beginner playing a game of chess with a Grandmaster who knows absolutely every possible move you will make in advance and already sees the end in full widescreen technicolor and surround sound.

    You don’t have to know everything, you only need to know that you are a broken and innately corrupt sinner before a Holy and perfect God who wishes to redeem you – and accept His solution – Jesus – as better than anything you can dream up. The failure to deal with first things first is – as Paul wrote – futile, foolish and a path to darkness.

    Mark Rabich

  4. Hi Bill,

    The atheistic belief in the rationality of the human mind is not based in any solid philosophy but is an axiom of their belief system.

    Ironically, half a millenia of the Christian pursuit of Science and the fruits from it have made it evidentally obvious that the mind of man is rational. So if it wasn’t for Christianity the modern form of atheism would not exist.

    At some level, it is also true that the same has been done with morality. Right, wrong and even the existence of human rights are assumed when convenient, because they were so firmly ingrained within western culture. You now have things such as ‘abortion rights’ being claimed, even though there is absolutely no basis for it. Hundreds of years after the Bill of Rights, it is simply assumed that fundamental rights exist and can be extended in anyway deemed appropriate.

    In many ways Atheism as we see it, is more the rejection God because He contradicts the belief in the absolute sovereignty of the adult mind. Just look at the major cultural clashes we see; abortion, homosexual affirmation, ‘science’ worship, the blurring of gender etc. This is why we see such venom from the other side- they see any questioning of their ‘knowledge’ (Evolution, GW), their desires and their ideas of how society can be saved as abhorrent because it threatens their god.

    Jono Bertuch

  5. LOL. You and John Cleese both Bill

    And David Bentley Hart mentions too:

    “Anecdotally, I know for a fact that numerous attempts have been made, not to convince him [Dawkins] that there is a God, but merely to apprise him of the elementary errors that throng his arguments…. he simply does not grasp what he is being told, so engaged is he in repeating over and over the little “mantras” he has devised for himself.”

    Martin Snigg

  6. How do these guys propose that religion evolved because of its profound usefulness to our survival, reproduction and cohesiveness as a group and yet religion is just so poisonous to society?

    The argument that evolution evolves false beliefs such as religion is making Alvin Plantinga’s argument for him – that evolution provides fitness relevant beliefs but not truth relevant beliefs. Therefore we cannot rely on our evolved cognitive faculties in believing in naturalism.

    It isn’t just Plantinga that has made the argument that evolution does not produce true beliefs. It has also been made by some eliminativists like Paul Churchland and Stephen Stich.

    Damien Spillane

  7. Memes.

    Interesting that someone’s greatest contribution to knowledge can be a word for an idea that already exists.

    Does meme mean anything more than idea?

    Yes, actually. It’s got all the explanatary power of evolution packed behind it. No longer do you have to make a case or engage in an argument, simply call it a meme.

    That biology must be a powerful science. Dawkins applies it so successfully in every field from philosophy, history, astrophysics to theology. Oops, sorry, I forgot theology is not a proper field of study. Nonetheless, his biology credentials give him the chutzpah to wade into theology and make his ignorance his chief platform. Powerful stuff.

    Or is it that the natural selection idea, errr meme, tells us what we want to hear?

    Suggestion for all:

    When discussing evolution or natural selection, discuss it using terms like “the natural selection meme”. For if ever any idea has ever been taken up by the general public without honest scrutiny merely because it’s a convenient excuse and on the basis of authority, this is it. That’s Dawkins definition of a meme.

    The evolution meme.

    God Bless,
    Michael Hutton

  8. It has been said: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe nothing. They believe anything!” Just one more case in point.
    Kevin Butler

  9. This reminds me of the story told by Rousas Rushdooney one time missionary to an American Indian group.

    On his travel to and from the group he was want to visit a friend with whom he had many a discussion about the “contradictions” and etc, in the Bible that were the stumbling block preventing him from coming to faith. Rushdooney routinely demolished each argument, but after some time noticed that old “demolished” stumbling blocks were being raised again by his friend.

    After prayerful consideration Rushdooney recognised that the issues weren’t academic. On the next visit Rushdooney talked with his friend about sin and the need for repentance.

    He was not invited back!

    Any red herring will do, provided it keeps one from the truth.

    Bruce Knowling

  10. If believing in Christ is a life choice, then believing in anything else means certain death.
    Hans Brammer

  11. If there really is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving being who can intervene in the affairs of the world, why does he allow natural disasters to occur, e.g. a tsunami which kills some 300,000 people?
    Greg Johnson

  12. Thanks Greg

    You ask a question which entire libraries have sought to answer, and you want me to satisfy you with a mere comment??!! Even an entire article could barely scratch the surface, but I will do that and let you know when it is up. In the meantime, the issue you deal with is known as theodicy, and I already have 20 articles on that on my site. See the subject headings on the home page, and look under “apologetics”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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