Regis Nicoll

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

True Agnostics Do Not Exist

In "An Agnostic Manifesto" literary critic Ron Rosenbaum, a self-described agnostic, writes, "Agnosticism is not weak-tea atheism," but "radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty." He explains that unlike both atheists and theists, agnostics refuse to accept things on faith. For example, when asked about the origin of the universe – what "banged" and what caused it — the agnostic shrugs, ever so humbly, "I don't know."

It is a response calculated to let you know that he occupies an elevated plain of intellectual integrity. What the agnostic doesn't realize is that he is just as much a person of faith as those he tries to distance himself from. It begins with what he really knows.

What he knows

What he or anyone knows starts with personal experience.

Children learn about the dangers of a hot stove not from their mother's warnings but from the smarting of their curious fingertips. Adults will insist that a ball, swung over the head on a string, will follow a curved path when released, until they try it and discover that it continues on a straight one.

In cases where personal experience is no help — like questions about the origin of the universe or the existence of heaven, the soul and God — people depend on nonexperiential sources.

One source is intellectual predisposition, best expressed by Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."

Note that Lewontin's trust in science as the fount of knowledge is based on his intellectual preference to a particular worldview, not on science's demonstrated power in answering life's ultimate questions.

Another source is our nonrational sensibilities. For instance, astrobiologist Paul Davies believes that a yet-to-be-discovered principle is woven into the cosmos that makes biological life inevitable. He believes this, not because he has any evidence to substantiate it, but because, as he puts it, he is "more comfortable" with it than the alternatives — presumably, those that include a necessary Being.

More to the point is NYU law professor Thomas Nagel who, in a moment of admirable candor, admitted, "It isn't just that I don't believe in God I hope there is no God! I don't want the universe to be like that."

For Davies and Nagel, knowledge is determined by emotional aversion and affinity.

Lastly, there is authority.

At the individual level, knowledge is limited. No one can personally verify every claim as fact. Thus, much of what we "know" depends on the word of others: journalists, scientists, teachers, parents, pastors. A person need not have lived in 19th-century France to know that Napoleon existed, nor bounce a laser beam off the moon to know that light travels at 186,282 miles per second. Obviously, authority-derived knowledge requires faith in the expertise and trustworthiness of other people.

It is even by faith that we know that the law of gravity will remain valid tomorrow.

Despite mathematical relationships that describe the effects of gravity, there is no consensus about its nature. Is it a distortion of space-time, an attractive force of tiny, mediating and, as of yet, hypothetical particles (gravitons?), a mysterious "action-at-a-distance" between bodies having mass? All of the above? Take your pick.

Without such knowledge, belief that the tide will rise in the morning is nothing more than belief that the future will be like the past. But if the universe is the fluke product of random collisions, as some claim, that belief requires faith in the unwavering regularity of nature and the infallibility of our sensory experiences and rational abilities.

If, on the other hand, the universe is the product of an Intelligence that wanted to make it intelligible, the lawful and predictable behavior of nature is a logical and reasonable expectation.

Consequently, the agnostic, like everyone else, has faith. What's more, Ron Rosenbaum's belief in "uncertainty" is an expression of faith in the certainty that answers to "ultimate" questions are uncertain. So, in reality, his faith is not in uncertainty at all. And that applies to his practiced faith, as well as his professed faith.

Practical belief

Faith is confirmed not in what we say (our beliefs), but in what we do (our behaviors).

A child standing nervously at the edge of the pool, being coaxed by his father in the water, must either plunge in or remain at water's edge. There is no middle way. He may believe with all his heart that his father won't let harm come to him, but until he jumps, his fear holds him captive in functional unbelief.

To the question, "Does God exist?" a person can answer: yes, I don't know, or no. But in practice, a person must live as if God does or doesn't exist; there is nothing else to do, but oscillate schizophrenically between the two.

Agnosticism is a statement, a mood, a posture. It thrives in the intellectual oxygen of coffeehouses and cocktail conversations. But outside of those breezy zones, the atmosphere supports only belief and unbelief.

Chattanoogan Regis Nicoll is a fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview who writes commentary on faith and culture for a number of print and online publications. This commentary is adapted from his book, "Why There Is a God and Why It Matters," available on Amazon.

Sharing the Faith

The challenge for Christians today, as in every era, is to be prepared in season and out of season to share the rational basis for faith. This is not foremost about defending truth, but about giving it voice. For as Charles Spurgeon once counseled, "Truth is like a lion. Who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose and it will defend itself."

A few years back, I was engaged in an online discussion with “Nigel” (not his real name).

Nigel was a self-described atheist and rising star in the Brights movement – a community of philosophical naturalists aimed at “illuminating and elevating the naturalistic worldview,” as their slogan proudly states. Some of its more prominent luminaries include Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Daniel Dennett.

After coming across an article I had written critical of naturalism, Nigel invited me to dialog with him on his open blog. I agreed and was quickly drawn into a protracted discussion.

Over a period of several weeks, we covered topics ranging from the origin of the universe and the nature of matter to the origin of morality and the nature of God.  While Nigel betrayed no movement away from his atheistic position during the course of our exchange, a man who had been following our dialog left this remark:

"I have truly been swayed by Mr. Nicholl's (sic) writings. There is a [lot] to think about in his reply. Somehow I think I've always known we were not a cosmic accident. And Nigel, you are a brilliant man. Am I to believe great minds are a product of evolution. It's not adding up any more. I'm not saying Christianity is right but I do now believe in a God. There, I said it. I'm on record. My curiosity is stoked for further responses from Mr. Nicholl (sic). Nigel, thanks for having this blog. I have some heavy things to think about now from both sides."

As I read those words my thoughts turned to Spurgeon.  I realized that it wasn’t me or my skill that moved this man; it was the truth turned loose upon him.

To equip others to do just that, my newly released book, Why There Is a God and Why It Matters, is arranged around a collection of my essays that I have selected and revised to systematically address 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, the metaphysical questions of meaning, purpose, and significance, 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.

In the preface to his book, The God Delusion, atheist popularizer Richard Dawkins makes 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 goals for this book are that 1) unbelievers who open it will be believers when they put it down, and 2) believers who open it will be more confident in their beliefs and in their ability to give them voice.

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.


 

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