Five Challenges For Your Secular Friends

sisyphusDo you feel like you’re always on the defensive about Christianity? There’s the Crusades, Westboro is probably inappropriately protesting something, and a prominent Christian leader has likely said something your friends think is wrong. And even once you get past the stereotypes, it takes a lot of hard work to intelligently share the gospel with your secular, skeptical friends.

But what about atheism? Though it has been persistently marketed to us as a worldview that stands for reason and science, the truth is that the atheistic worldview is riddled with contradictions and outlandish claims. And because most secular people haven’t studied why atheism is true, an excellent evangelistic strategy for you and your church is to understand these five challenges for atheism.

In my experience, it is only once people realize that their own worldview doesn’t work that they become interested in seeking something that does. While some would suggest you just have to wait for people to hit rock bottom, I think a more gracious and effective approach is to humbly challenge their pretense to have a sensible worldview.

By God’s grace, studying these five holes in the atheistic worldview can create a powerful opportunity for you and your church to share the wisdom and love of Jesus Christ.

First: What Is Atheism?

In any dialogue between different worldviews, it’s crucial that we define our terms carefully. While there are many kinds of ‘atheism,’ perhaps the most common version is also called “Naturalism.” At a conference in 2012, prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Rebecca Goldstein, Alex Rosenberg, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, and Steven Weinberg defined their shared viewpoint as:

The view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings. 1

Or as Dr. Alex Rosenberg, chair of the Philosophy department at Duke University, has concisely explained, “What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them.” 2

So What’s The Problem?

The atheist, as defined above, must deal with a logical inconsistency between their commitment to the “impersonal and inviolable” laws of the universe and their inevitable recognition that there exists “intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.”

Because of their fundamental commitment to impersonal matter and laws, the atheist faces very difficult problems in at least five unique areas:

  • Consciousness
  • Free will
  • Purpose
  • Reason, including mathematics and science
  • Objective moral facts, including universal human rights and the reality of evil

Consciousness

Isn’t it interesting that we look at and study everything within the natural world from a first-person perspective, except other persons? There’s a fundamental, categorical difference between, say, molecules in a test tube and a conscious self. One thought experiment asks us to consider the difference between a neuroscientist’s understanding of pain after studying all of the relevant literature and after a bowling ball falls on her foot. The first person “ouchiness” experience is a different kind of knowledge, distinct from a third person understanding of our neurological structures.

As T.H. Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” once remarked, “how it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.” 3

Free will

Leading atheists such as Sam Harris dismiss free will as a matter of course. Or as Tom Clark at Naturalism.org puts it, “Judged from a scientific and logical perspective, the belief that we stand outside the causal web in any respect is an absurdity, the height of human egoism and exceptionalism.”

Dr. Angus Menuge, the current President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, explains the problem: “before we can talk of being responsible for our decisions, we need an account of why those decisions belong to us. But the trouble is, on a naturalistic view, there is no entity that can plausibly own any mental states, there is simply a plurality of parallel, impersonal processes in the brain.”

The denial of free will logically leads to the denial of personal responsibility for any of our behaviors or beliefs. But if everything about “you” is determined, then “you” could not have reasonably chosen to believe what you do. If a-rational things and laws determined your neurological structure, “you” literally cannot make any decisions about what you believe or why you believe it.

Purpose

Among others, Richard Dawkins has admitted this universe lacks purpose: “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” 4

But does it seem to us that we have a purpose? Yes – and the logic of atheism means this is merely an illusion generated by our DNA, which unknowingly but relentlessly seeks to propagate itself. The atheist ‘explanation’ actually explains away our sense of purpose. “A feeling of purpose” is only a tool that is used to duplicate a blind and impersonal process. Can your secular friends consistently live within such a meaningless framework?

Reason, including mathematics and science

As C.S. Lewis explained, “If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.” 5

Reason requires the existence of immaterial (non-naturalistic) things: ideas, the laws of logic, mathematical objects, and the fundamental principles of reasoning. And to reason, an agent must purposefully choose to think about these ideas. But rocks cannot be ‘about’ something: so how can neurons be ‘about’ the law of gravity? Further, normative rules govern the reasoning process: 2+2 does not equal elephant. Where do these rules come from? And why do they apply to our brains?

Objective moral facts, including universal human rights and the reality of evil

In Uganda, Joseph Kony requires his child soldiers to kill escaping child soldiers by biting them to death. Think about it. What horror! Are there any moral facts which we can be right and wrong about, or is this just a difference of opinion? Is same-sex marriage a moral imperative or a completely arbitrary convention, no better and no worse than any other laws?

As the Christian philosophers Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliafero put it, “it is not clear how one can establish normative values on the basis of processes that are ultimately thoroughly unconscious, nonnormative, and contingent in nature.” 6

Ask your friend: do you have more evidence that atheism is true or that raping children is wrong? Be sure you ask them to defend their answer with clear and convincing reasons.

So Wait: Why Is Atheism True?

The next time you have a chance, ask one of your secular friends, “For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right, and this world is all there is. No gods exist. So can you explain something to me? How do we make sense of unconscious matter creating conscious persons, the fixed laws of nature giving us free choice, the random dance of the quarks producing the illusion of purpose, the a-rational atoms generating reason, and the brute reality of how things are developing into universal human rights? And if our DNA has foisted all of these illusions upon us, then how can we be sure that atheism isn’t just one more illusion?”

If nothing else, you should have a very interesting conversation! Based on seven years of ministry experience at Harvard, I can assure you that our God can use these five challenges to lead many of our secular friends away from the contradictions of atheism and into the coherence, truth, and love of Jesus.

This article is a summary of a longer, more developed talk I gave at Harvard and B.C. Law: Why Naturalism Is False (or Irrational).

Notes:

  1. Accessible at http://preposterousuniverse.com/naturalism2012/
  2. http://onthehuman.org/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/
  3. Quoted at http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/block/papers/harder.htm
  4. http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1121858-river-out-of-eden-a-darwinian-view-of-life
  5. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”
  6. Stewart Goetz; Charles Taliaferro. Naturalism (Kindle Locations 1197).