In recent years, many atheists have prominently championed their allegiance to intelligent thought. For instance, there is “The Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science” and Sam Harris’ book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” Atheists sometimes refer to themselves as “freethinkers” and “brights.”
The public perception that these atheists are working hard to strengthen is the idea that there is a cavernous divide between “faith” and “reason” or between “faith” and “progress.” The strategy is obvious: atheists are to champion their love for reason and progress while highlighting stories of religious people who evidently hate reason and fight for culturally regressive values. Over time, this strategy is intended to further displace religion and develop a far more secular perspective around the world.
Too often, Christians have naively responded to this strategy by going along and rejecting the use of reason. So, for instance, some Christians will claim that “all you need is faith” or “just share the simple gospel, nothing more.”
I want to recommend a different, more effective, two-part strategy for responding to these atheistic claims about faith, reason, science and progress:
- In general, Christians should celebrate reason, science, and progress.
- Christians should develop and become familiar with a variety of rational arguments which demonstrate that atheism, as a belief system, simply lacks the necessary intellectual framework that is required to sustain the values of reason, scientific innovation, and cultural progress. These arguments will need to be presented in a humble, loving, and gracious manner.
This article provides a brief overview for each part to this strategy.
Why should Christians celebrate reason, science, and progress?
First, consider that even if advocating for these values was a horribly ineffective strategy, Christians would still have a Biblical mandate to do so.
For each of the following points, I use the Bible to explain why Christians should be dedicated to the advance of reason, science and progress. Obviously, if you don’t think the Bible is a reliable guide to life, it will be unlikely that this section will motivate you to champion these values. But for those who do accept the Bible as authoritative, the point is that Christians themselves will live a more coherent, integrated life when they are celebrating reason, science and progress.
When it comes to the use of reason, the most important commandment in all of the Bible is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, ESV).
It really is astonishing that Christians have ever neglected intellectual activity, or even disparaged it, when fully using all of our mental capacities is part of Jesus’ most emphatic commandment to his followers. (For more, see this article on The Problem of Blind Faith).
As pastors teach in their churches, and parents teach in their homes, that Christians are required by Jesus to use their minds well, this will lead to a public resurgence of Christians and Christian institutions who gladly celebrate the importance of reason.
The Bible gives many reasons for Christians to love science. For instance, when we open the first page we learn, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). If science is the study of what God has made, then Christians should be eager to wholeheartedly participate in the scientific project. This is true regardless of whatever barriers might exist for Christian involvement in the sciences.
Looking at the last page of the Bible, the final chapter of Revelation unveils for us a vision of the city of God. In this city, next to “the river of the water of life,” is “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2).
This beautiful vision of the new heavens and earth implies that, first, we don’t have to be discouraged by death, which would otherwise destroy everything good that we create. Second, we don’t have to be confused about what to do in the first place, because we don’t believe that the universe lacks any ultimate, transcendent, or absolute purposes.
In short, the Bible encourages Christians that there is life after death and provides an ideal vision of what God intends to accomplish (e.g., the healing of the nations). Both of these convictions should make Christians resilient, purposeful, and joyful in their efforts to improve themselves and their society.
The Bible provides a solid foundation for Christians to love reason, science and progress. Championing these values in the public square will demonstrate the ongoing vitality of Christianity for the 21st century and beyond. And by becoming a people who are known for their devotion to reason, science and progress, it will make it that much harder for those who are in opposition to label Christians as irrational, anti-science fanatics who are opposed to improving society. Therefore, adopting this strategy is a matter of faithful obedience to Jesus, serving the world well, and avoiding unnecessary burdens in reaching out to others.
Why don’t reason, science and progress fit well within an atheistic worldview?
As always, I want to be very clear: my sincere desire is to avoid writing anything disrespectful about particular people. After all, attacking people’s character is not a very Christian way of dialogue! Instead, my goal is to provide a brief overview of the gap between the basic tenets of an atheistic worldview and the values of reason, science and progress. For this discussion, you may find it helpful to see how I define atheism. I’ve also covered these points more extensively in my series on atheism, agnosticism, and the new atheists. I’ve also written about my respect for how atheists value science and intellectual courage.
I don’t believe that this overview, with the arguments as they are sketched out below, will be convincing as it stands. However, that’s not the point. The importance of this section is the identification of the kinds of arguments which demonstrate the incompatibility between atheism’s most basic assumptions and the values which atheists are claiming for themselves.
Briefly, the main problem here is that abstract entities and concepts like propositions, rules of logic, and truth don’t make very much sense in a worldview which states that everything is either matter, energy or space-time. In order for the atheist to maintain consistency, it becomes necessary to reduce these transcendent concepts into empirical descriptions. Unfortunately, once we make this reductive shift to the level of neurons and chemical interactions, we no longer retain the language and conceptual framework which is indispensable for rational thought.
What I’m pointing out is the difference between two entirely different kinds of statements. It is the difference between “proposition P is true” and the statement “C fiber 2A is firing.” These are categorically different statements. My contention is that the atheistic framework can only support empirical statements like “C fiber 2A is firing,” but doesn’t have the intellectual foundation for statements like “proposition P is true.”
Again, this may strike you as undeveloped and unconvincing. But for the sake of discussion, look at it from another point of view: if a developed version of this argument is correct and convincing, then this becomes an incredibly important matter for our society to discuss. If there is a logical inconsistency between atheism and reason, then we all need to know and understand this. (For more, see this post on atheism and reason).
Science depends, of course, upon the human capacity for reason. If atheism cannot sustain the language and framework for reason, neither can it sustain the scientific enterprise. But what if we can go even further?
For instance, atheism posits that all life exists in a frantic scramble for survival, and whatever species continue to exist are those which do the best job of surviving long enough to reproduce. Upon sustained reflection, this indicates that the human species is also primarily oriented towards survival and not necessarily towards acquiring truth about the world.
If this argument succeeds, again, the implications are severe: at best, atheism allows us to be agnostic about whether or not humans beings are also ‘knowing beings’ who are capable of scientific investigation. (For a developed version of this argument, you could read Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism).
As we saw above, progress depends upon having an ideal worthy of progressing towards and the hope that our efforts will not be defeated by death. But atheism lacks any ultimate goal for humanity or the universe. This makes any suggested goals merely arbitrary whims. Even if we did make progress towards a powerful person’s preferred future, all of our efforts would only be very temporary successes that would be defeated by the inevitability of death. (For more, you can read about the atheistic problem of purpose).
The above arguments, and others like them, have the potential to be very potent. If true, they establish that atheism lacks the necessary intellectual foundation to sustain the values of reason, science and progress. Though atheist organizations ardently champion their love for these virtues, this advocacy may nevertheless be inconsistent with their fundamental convictions. However, we can all be grateful for every atheist who is committed to reason, for instance, as this creates a common ground for dialogue. As we saw above, this is a conversation which Christians should also be excited about and well-prepared to participate in!
Reason, science and progress are essential values for any healthy society. Despite the inconsistency with their own worldview, it is to their great credit that atheists have so passionately defended each of them. It is essential for Christians to do the same – and more – if they wish to be faithful to the commands of Jesus and wise servants of society.