By LeRoy Lawson
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” the very obviously alive Mark Twain loved to quip.
Reporting on God’s death has also been exaggerated. In1966, for example, Time blackened its April 8 cover to feature the death of God. Theologians like William Hamilton and Thomas J. J. Altizer had gravely delivered the eulogy in learned disquisitions. God would be missed, but we could manage without him, they assured us.
Now in the 21st century along come Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (A Natural Phenomenon), and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) with their variations on the theme. They don’t exactly proclaim God dead. They just wish him so.
David Aikman, The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness (Salt River/Tyndale, 2008).
Rising to resuscitate God’s reputation are people like David Aikman (and books like this one) to insist that God is not dead and science has not killed him and those who say so are dangerous.
Aikman, veteran Time journalist, believes the “four horsemen” (as he refers to the above authors), do not make as convincing a case for burying God and ridiculing religion as they think.
In 2003 Dawkins and Dennett wrote some editorials advocating that atheists become known as “the brights.” Which, as one NPR commentator noted, makes the rest of us “the dims.” What makes us dim, of course, is our religion.
Aikman refuses to be bedimmed. He captures the four horsemen’s arguments in seven statements:
1. It is very improbable that God exists, and science can explain people’s religious impulses.
2. Religions are bad because they cause people to do bad things, and most religious figures throughout history have been bad people.
3. If the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures existed, he would be a very bad person.
4. Science is everywhere and at all times opposed to religion.
5. Atheism (almost) never causes people to do bad things.
6. Most of America’s Founding Fathers were deist, agnostic, or secular, and it is their Enlightenment understanding of society that forms the foundation of America’s enduring freedom.
7. There is a dire civilizational need for atheism to prevail.
Wrong on all points, Aikman insists. His counterarguments are worth pondering, although I suspect he’ll be persuasive only to the already convinced.
John Humphrys, In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist (Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).
It’s refreshing to turn from Aikman’s not entirely successful attempts to tame the horsemen to John Humphrys. He spent 45 years reporting from all over the world for the BBC and hosting Radio4’s Today and BBC2’s Mastermind—and thinking about God.
Humphrys writes thoughtfully for and respectfully of “the millions of people like me who have given God a lot of thought over the years and have managed to come to no definite conclusion but would very much like to.” He insists that being a doubter (an agnostic) is not an easy option. It’s quite the opposite. “I’ll tell you what’s easy. Atheism for a start. It’s easy being a fundamentalist, too.”
The book is the fruit of his broadcast interviews (in “Humphrys in Search of God”) of acknowledged leaders of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and the epistolary responses from the audience. That experience and his own personal odyssey convinced him “there is a profound longing for something that will stimulate and satisfy [people] emotionally and spiritually.”
He has been surprised, he writes, “how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They too, are sincere. Devout skeptics, if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them.”
Something else he learned. “But here’s the interesting thing: it was only the atheists who seemed absolutely certain.” That proves nothing, of course, but is a cause for pause.
As is this one: “Clearly the world would be a better place without religious extremism of any kind, but for atheists to claim that without religion peace and harmony would reign is patently absurd. It’s not the Bible that proves that. It’s the history books.”
Humphrys believes “atheists have the best arguments. What they don’t have—as far as I’m concerned—is much of a grasp on whatever it is that makes human beings what we are.” He’s speaking of “our soul, our spirit, our conscience or whatever else you want to call it.” This is “that other mysterious attribute, about which so many scientists are curiously incurious.”
Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006).
This, as you could predict, is my favorite of these three books. As far as Collins is concerned, there should be no war between science and religion. Far from being antagonists, if rightly understood they complement one another.
Dr. Collins recently stepped down as director of the Human Genome Project, which after more than a decade revealed the human DNA sequence of more than 3 billion letters. When announcing the achievement at the White House, he said, “It’s a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”
In the preface he explains this achievement’s meaning: “For me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.”
He insists that “belief in God can be an entirely rational choice.” So Francis Collins, son of freethinkers and a one-time militant atheist, now embraces a spiritual worldview. He believes atheism has no satisfactory way to account for biblical love, agape. How, scientifically, do you explain altruism?
Arguments from the moral law (along with many other issues) “forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.”
Read in this order, these three books progress from militant atheism (and its opposing aggressive anti-atheism) to agnosticism to the reconciliation of God and science in Collins’s theism. He tackles debated issues head on (Isn’t the idea of God just wish fulfillment? What about all the harm done in the name of religion? Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world? How can a rational person believe in miracles?) and along the way shares the lessons learned from the human genome.
You probably will not agree with Collins on everything. He subscribes to evolution which, he told Stephen Colbert (in a December 2006 interview), “is God’s way of giving upgrades.” He thinks evolution is evidence of God’s creativity, not his absence from nature.
Collins meets most thoughtful Christians when he affirms, as he did on CNN, “I had to admit that the science I loved so much was powerless to answer questions such as ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Why does mathematics work, anyway?’ ‘If the universe had a beginning, who created it?’ ”
Some challenging reading this month, don’t you think? Challenging, but not definitive. The arguments will continue. More books will be published.
But so far, the reports of God’s death seem greatly exaggerated.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.