Regis Nicoll

Freelance Writer, Speaker, Worldview Teacher, Men's Ministry Leader

Losing One's Faith

"It’s a familiar story, Margaret Wheeler Johnson’s account of losing her faith. As Johnson tells it, the personal integrity that religion instilled in her “made it impossible to maintain faith” in religion. A while back, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla made a similar disclosure: Namely, the truth that led him to faith was the very thing that led him 'out of faith' ... What folks like Johnson and Lilla often don’t realize (or admit) is that they don’t lose their faith; they merely shift it from one object to another. Otherwise, they would quickly learn that without faith in something, life itself would be impossible." Read more i"Why There Is a God and Why It Matters," available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. 

(From "Why There Is a God and Why It Matters," available at Amazon.)

For the better part of the last century, science and religion have had a rocky relationship. The source of their tension, which has intensified in recent years, can be traced to Enlightenment thought that held unaided reason omnipotent. 

From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, an explosion of scientific discoveries convinced thinkers that the cosmos was a grand machine that could be analyzed without reference to its Designer. By the twentieth century, the overwhelming success of science in modern medicine and technology strengthened the conviction that the universe was a self-contained mechanism.

Although trust in the explanatory power of science soared, faith and religion were allowed a voice, as long as that voice was restricted to man’s spiritual needs. The late Stephen Jay Gould called this bifurcated view, “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). 

Today, naturalistic science and NOMA are reigning paradigms in the scientific establishment. But for the pioneers of science, the study of nature was inextricably linked to nature’s God — specifically, the God of Christianity. But first, a little background.

The lens of nature

In primitive history, man found himself in a world of both regularity and capriciousness. Diurnal periods, seasons of the year, moon phases, the cycle of life and the like, formed a seabed of predictability that enabled man to function in his day-to-day existence. But superimposed on that seabed were earthquakes, floods, droughts, pestilence, and disease—things that came unexpectedly and without warning. 

These vagaries caused man to view himself as a victim of mysterious forces that ruled the earth and skies. For him, order and chaos, fate and fortune, or warring gods were in perpetual clash, making any systematic understanding of the world impossible.

But by the fifth century B.C., the Greeks acknowledged a “cosmic principle of order,” they called the Logos, which gave rise to a rational, comprehensible universe. This was the seed of natural philosophy--a system of observation and logical analysis. The most influential figures of the period were Plato and Aristotle who approached the study of nature from two different starting points. 

For Plato, the world consisted of matter and forms. Matter was the stuff of sense perception--concrete objects that exist for a time, undergo change and finally vanish. Forms, on the other hand, were eternal, immaterial ideals which defined the qualities and purposes of matter.

In Plato’s universe, matter and forms were separate and distinct, with the material world but a shadowy projection created by the real world of forms. From this dichotomous perspective, Plato studied nature not to understand it, but to unravel the metaphysical mysteries of meaning, purpose, and the essence of the good life.

Aristotle, in contrast, held that the material world was real and that nature—its material existence and immaterial forms--were a cohesive, integrated whole.  Consequently, Aristotle studied nature for its own sake becoming a prodigious investigator, especially in the classification of flora and fauna.

Although both men applied logic and deductive analysis to their observations, their failure to incorporate experimentation caused them to reach a number of invalid conclusions. For example, Aristotle believed in a geocentric universe and in the celestial substance, aether.  He also declared that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones—a conclusion that, in testament to Aristotle’s enduring influence, would go unchallenged for nearly 2000 years!

Experimentation was shunned because it was associated with physical work—the duty of servants and slaves. For citizens and persons of standing, the only commendable work was the high exercises of the intellect: art, politics and philosophy.

Natural philosophy was further hampered by a tendency toward dualism. Even Aristotle, despite his belief in nature’s wholeness, reasoned that there were two sets of laws governing the universe: one for the heavens which were pure and eternal, and another for the earth which was corrupt and fleeting. 

This led to an emphasis of the heavenly over the earthly, causing the advance of science to languish centuries after Aristotle’s death. Although there was alchemy, astrology and medicine, the deeper understandings of chemistry, astronomy and medical science would have to await nearly two millennia for a new paradigm.

The lens of scripture

The low view of nature held by the ancient philosophers stood in stark contrast to that in scripture.

In the opening chapter of Genesis, the Creator declared creation, all of it—material and immaterial, seen and unseen, celestial and terrestrial—good! Included, were a pair of co-workers who, in contradistinction to Greek dualism—were “living souls” comprised of a material body and immaterial spirit. Their job assignment: to manage, care for, and enrich the Creator’s handiwork.

But it's in the gospel account we find the supreme statement of nature's value. There we read of the Creator assuming corporeality for an earthly visitation to redeem and restore a world wobbling on its axis from sin.

The significance of the material world, as evidenced in God’s dazzling display of love, couldn’t be further removed from that reckoned by the ancient philosophers. Through the lens of scripture, the physical world is of inestimable worth in the Divine calculus.

In the 13th century a Dominican scholar used that lens to refract the blurry image of the Logos into that of the living God. Like the apostle Paul who stood in the Areopagus calling out the identity of the “UNKNOWN GOD” to the Athenian seekers, Thomas Aquinas declared that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the “cosmic principle of order” of the Greek philosophers.

Aquinas argued that the universe is intelligible not because it is a product of an impersonal uncaused Cause, but because it is a creation of a rational God. This God, though separate from his creation, sustains it and values it, and destines it for a glorious makeover.  In the meantime, He has endowed a special creature—man-- with intelligence, giving him the responsibility to exercise his rational powers in caring for creation. For Thomas, this was the God of scripture.

Thomas Aquinas was pivotal in changing the prevailing sentiment that nature was inherently corrupt. As nature became restored to its proper place, interest in the material world grew and the study of nature became viewed as a noble pursuit. This laid the groundwork for cultural and technological advances that would come later.

The birth of science

Roger Bacon was a Franciscan monk and a contemporary of Aquinas. Bacon and, later, William Ockham, another Franciscan, introduced the ideas of induction and verification into what would become the backbone of the scientific method. But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the crawl to discovery took a sudden, upward lurch. It was then that another devout believer named Bacon—Francis, this time—amended the venerable Aristotelian method with hands-on experimentation.  By synthesizing observation and hypothesis with experimentation and validation, Bacon sired a method of investigation which would be a template for all who followed.

Within a few decades, man’s understanding of the world was turned on its head by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton -- all men of faith, men whose Christian worldview gave them confidence in a rational, comprehensible world; men who considered the study of nature a sacred calling. They were the vanguard of something that had been held back for millennia by pagan philosophy and mysticism: Science.

After mid-wifing science, Christian thought catalyzed the Scientific Revolution and sustained it for the next two hundred years. As historian Alvin J. Schmidt remarks in his book, Under the Influence, “[V]irtually all the scientists from the Middle Ages to the mid-eighteenth century—many of whom were seminal thinkers—not only were sincere Christians but were often inspired by biblical postulates and premises in their theories that sought to explain and predict natural phenomena.”

Well into the nineteenth century, Christian thinkers dominated the scientific frontier with groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of electro-magnetism, microbiology, medicine, genetics, chemistry, atomic theory, and molecular motion.

It is noteworthy that despite the technological and engineering marvels produced by ancient Egypt, China and India, true science did not come out from those civilizations. Because of their transcendental worldview, the workings of Nature were thought to be beyond the grasp of mere mortals. Consequently, scientific advancement went so far, but no farther.

Neither did science emerge from Islamic culture which, after its Golden Age, has been in free fall since 1200 AD. It was then that Muslims embraced a more orthodox Islam in which Allah was a capricious puppeteer beyond reason and logic, and man his fatalistic marionette.

Granted, these cultures made some great technological achievements, but it is the unique Christian understanding of God and his creation that made modern science possible. And the scientific materialist who insists that religious faith is an argument from ignorance has it quite the other way around.


 

Breaking the Spell of Unbelief

From Why There Is a God and Why It Matters by Regis Nicoll:

The problem of our time, to riff off of G.K. Chesterton, is that “The truth hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it’s been unheard and left untried.” Witness the new wave of atheism that has been sweeping over the cultural landscape over the past couple of decades. At the vanguard are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens whose anti-God books have become popular best-sellers. In the preface to his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins made no bones about his goal: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” In similar vein, my hope for this book is that unbelievers who open it will be believers when they put it down, and believers who open it will be more confident in their beliefs and better equipped to give voice to the truth. While Dawkins and his ilk take pride in claiming that their beliefs are based on reason and facts, not faith and just-so stories, beneath the patina of intellectualism is a blinkered commitment to (that is, faith in) their own just-so stories. Thus, breaking the spell of unbelief starts with dismantling intellectual barriers that have been erected to block out the light of truth. To equip the reader to do just that, this book, written for expert and layman alike, addresses truth from the ground up: from nature of knowledge and the knowledge of nature; to the competing narratives of naturalism and theism in explaining the origin of the universe, life, morality, and the metaphysical questions of meaning, purpose, and significance, and the role faith plays in all explanatory accounts and how God -- in particular, the Christian God -- is the “explanation” that best fits the facts, notwithstanding the age-old problems of evil, suffering, and injustice. Read more here.

A Matter of Intelligence

From my book "Why There Is a God and Why It Matters" from Amazon, now available in paperback and eBook

A Matter of Intelligence

Are religious believers intellectually challenged? According to a raft of studies popular in free-thinking circles, yes.

After compiling dozens of surveys conducted over a 50-year time span, researcher Burnham P. Beckwith concluded in 1986, “Among American students and adults, the amount of religious faith tends to vary inversely and appreciably with intelligence.” According to a 2008 Gallup survey 73 percent of college-educated individuals profess belief in God, compared to 88 percent of those with no college.

Among scientists, religious belief is much lower. In 2009, Pew Research reported that 41 percent of scientists believe in God. Other studies found that belief in God was held by 7 percent of National Academy of Science members and only 3.3 percent of UK Royal Society fellows.

What this means to religious skeptics, like Richard Lynn, is that really smart people (like him) don’t believe in God. Lynn, a professor of psychology, believes it is “simply a matter of IQ” – the higher the IQ, the greater immunity to religious belief. That puts the burden upon bright folk to “break the spell” of religion by lighting a candle in the “demon-haunted world” of superstition.

A while back, a friend asked me, “Can a person who flunks the test to the most basic question in life, ‘is there a God?’, be considered intelligent?” It’s good question, because what we “know” about our world, human nature, life’s purpose, moral ethics and just about everything else hangs on what we believe about their origin.

But what is “intelligence?” Surprisingly, there is no unanimous agreement on what it is, except, as someone once quipped, “intelligence is whatever intelligence tests measure.”

From a survey of standard dictionary definitions, intelligence is associated with the ability to learn and use knowledge. The American Psychological Association calls it, “[The] ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought.” But perhaps the most comprehensive definition is found in “Mainstream Science on Intelligence,” endorsed by 52 researchers:

“Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Ratherit reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.”

Defined that way, intelligence is inextricably connected with worldview: the mental model we use to understand the world and our place it. Problem solving and affecting our environment depend on the rational ability of our mind to make “sense of things,” but they also depend on the non-rational capability of our heart to apply the “sense” our mind has “made.”

Consequently, a person who orders his life according to a worldview that aligns with the way the world really works, could be said to possess true intelligence, while a person who orders his life after an incongruent worldview, could be said to demonstrate artificial intelligence.

In a lengthy discussion I had with a self-proclaimed atheist, I was informed that, unlike the “God hypothesis,” naturalism is free of untestable, unfalsifiable placeholders. To which, I politely pointed out that naturalism brims with placeholders, whimsical theories sustained by nothing other than the will to believe.

I went on to explain that these theories grew out of the unsettling recognition that we inhabit a Goldilocks planet, one in which life teeters on the edge of non-existence.  Scrambling to account for these “just right” conditions, desperate theorists trotted out the multiverse, an infinite manifold of universes that guarantees the existence of our hospitable home, and every conceivable (and inconceivable) one as well.  But that’s not the half of it.

The very existence of the multiverse depends on the quantum field – a gossamer fabric of reality comprised of neither matter nor energy, but "potentiality."

In this wraithlike realm virtual particles continuously pop in and out of existence in such a way that the universal laws of conservation are not violated -- except, that is, in a singular event that occurred over 14 billion years ago. By a process called inflation, one of those "particles" defied the sacrosanct laws of physics by materializing, then exploding at such an expansive rate that it gave birth to all the matter and energy that would become our fledgling universe.

 

Even the baloney-detectors of laymen should peg out when leading researchers like Alan Guth present this narrative beaming, "It is said there is no such thing as a free lunch. But the universe is the ultimate free lunch." Sad to say, such cognitive dissonance among authorities is far from the exception.

Indeed, when other gap-fillers like emergencememes and macro-evolution are added to account for biological life, thought, and the encyclopedic information in the genome, the narrative of naturalism reads more like a Brothers Grimm tale than Newton’s “Principia Mathematica.”

My interlocutor responded, “Regis, but the speculative theories about the multiverse are there for a reason… We can either try to work out what's going on by proposing bold new ideas about the construction of the entire universe... Or we can say: "God did it." I mean, what is the alternative?”

Precisely, what is the alternative?

A whiff of jitteriness oozed from his question -- for the inescapable answer is “There is no alternative.” Either the universe is the thoughtful creation of an intelligent Designer, or the fluke product of some pre-cosmic, unintelligent essence. If we reject the Designer because he is unyielding to our empirical methods, we are left with a scenario that depends on a host of things that are, likewise, unyielding -- not to mention the task of explaining the existence of art, music, literature, poetry and language as creations of our neuron impulses.

Discussing his re-conversion after a 20-year sojourn in atheism, English writer A.N. Wilson confesses “I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers.” What’s more, the complexities of our humanness forced him to reassess, on an intellectual basis, the materialistic dogma that love, music, and language are artifacts of unguided, unintelligent evolutionary processes.

Wilson recounts a conversation with a fellow materialist that underscored the uncritical, unexamined tenets of the “faith.”

After chatting about their common difficulty in remembering people’s names, Wilson’s friend offered “It is because when we were simply anthropoid apes, there was no need to distinguish between one another by giving names.” Wilson writes “This credal confession struck me as just as superstitious as believing in the historicity of Noah’s Ark. More so, really.”

Turning back from the sirens of atheism, Wilson returned to the faith he had left decades ago, with the conviction “that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.”

After years in the wasteland, A. N. Wilson rediscovered the one worldview that lines up with the way things really are. In his words, "it fits!" It is an intelligent discovery that begins with considering the true nature of things.


 

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