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Is There A God — And Does It Matter?
Skepticism, and Beyond

Stephen Cox

We can’t know everything about the universe, but the evidence indicates that there is a God, and that he is important to a free society.

Ampers&nd

A longtime friend of The Zoo Fence found this article on the Liberty Unbound website, and called our attention to it. On first reading, we liked its clarity, its even-handedness, its reasonableness, and its generosity of spirit so much that we decided to ask for permission to place it here, on TZF’s Ampers&nd feature.

The article’s writer, Stephen Cox, is a professor at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD). According to the UCSD website, Professor Cox’s areas include Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, William Blake, the History of Liberal Ideas, and the New Testament and Its Literary Influence. His listing at the university website includes an impressively long list of writings.

Stephen Cox is the author of The New Testament and Literature (Chicago: Open Court - Carus, 2006).

This article was written in response to an earlier article that also appears on the Liberty Unbound website, in which its writer, Leland Yeager, presents a “wise and tolerant essay on the question of religious belief”, to borrow Professor Cox’s words. That article too is well worth a careful read. To do so, please click here.

Professor Cox’s article includes source citations and other external references. We are unable definitively to identify the source citations, and so we have left them untouched. We have hyperlinked some of the other references to definitions or descriptions either at our “Editor’s Notes” section below the article or to external pages. In order not to break the reader’s focus from the thrust of this essay, we decided not to underline, colorize, or otherwise highlight linked words. Instead, when you come across a word or reference that you think might be linked, simply hold your mouse pointer over it. It should then display as red.

This article is respectfully and gratefully reproduced here with permission from the publisher, Liberty Foundation. The publisher’s website is www.libertyunbound.com. There is a lot of good stuff there, making it well worth a visit.

Ampers&nd

I am grateful to Leland Yeager for his wise and tolerant essay on the question of religious belief — a question that is continually debated in the libertarian community.

My guess is that libertarians are about equally divided between believers and nonbelievers. And although it seems possible to me that a person’s ideas about God may have no relation to his or her ideas about liberty, most libertarians apparently believe that the two are closely related. That’s why debates about religion tend to be so acrimonious in our community.

Professor Yeager’s judicious account of his own thoughts and experiences — an examination of belief from the nonbeliever’s point of view — does much to dispel these clouds of furor. He has generously given me permission to present a contrasting account, a defense of the validity and importance of religious, and especially Christian, ideas. I should mention that I share Yeager’s reverence for the skeptical mind, wishing only that believers as well as nonbelievers always had enough of this reverence to separate bad arguments from good ones, as Yeager does.

I’ll start by making a distinction that both opponents and proponents of religion often neglect, the distinction between “historical,” “philosophical,” and “scientific” ways of approaching the subject. Of these, the scientific seems to me the weakest — as Yeager illustrates, in his review of the many questions that science currently fails to answer, to the satisfaction of either believers or nonbelievers.

Science does show that believers shouldn’t be naive enough to take the first two chapters of Genesis literally. Yet only a minority of believers are that naive. Most are untroubled by the idea that God used the natural processes that he created — including evolution — to work his will. Meanwhile, as Yeager notes, despite all the instruction science can give, “the probability that the universe and life could have originated by sheer chance” still “seems vanishingly small.”

There may, to use his image, be some degree of probability that a universe like ours could have been formed by chance, like a hand of bridge — though to me, the analogy is not fully instructive. A bridge hand is a chance event within a highly ordered system; it has no order in itself; its nature and significance derive from the rule–bound process by which it was generated. A closer analogy would be that between a universe and the game, with all its rules. Imagine the game of bridge arising, chock–full of rules, by random chance. Impossible! But the universe is an incomparably more complicated game than bridge.

Where scientific explanation leaves off, philosophical explanation begins. Like Yeager, I maintain a large degree of skepticism about philosophical responses to the basic religious question, Is there a God? The “ontological” or purely philosophical argument for God’s existence, an argument proceeding by logical deduction, occupied the attention of such great thinkers as Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz, and Gödel. It does not occupy mine. Neither do the attempts by Ayn Rand and other Objectivists to create an ontological argument against the existence of God, an argument that seems to me a mere juggling with words. (For two analyses of this argument, see Parrish 2007, Toner 2007.) In my view, to say, with Rand, that “existence exists,” and that everything that exists has its own “identity,” implies precisely nothing about what may exist and about its possible origins and actions.

One philosophical approach has gained, I believe, some grip on the problem. We know that the natural universe, the universe that science studies, functions by means of rule–bound relationships among time, space, and their strange sibling, matter. It is this fact, indeed, that makes chance appear so improbable as an explanation for the universe, because it would have to explain not only wombats and wolverines but also the existence and regularities of time and space. Now, either these qualities of the natural world had a beginning, or they did not. Everything we know about the natural world suggests that everything within it began. The evolutionary scientist can hardly stop his investigations at a discrete place in history and declare that “this is just the way things always were.” No, he is obliged by his own premises to go all the way to the beginning, and earlier.

So we must conceive of nature, with all its rules, including the relations of time, space, and matter, as beginning somewhere. At some “place” within existence, matter, space, and time itself began. So, what existed before time? (This is a paradox, of course; but cosmology, atheist or Christian, is necessarily full of apparent paradoxes, particularly in its consideration of the notion of time.) Since the age of St. Augustine (or before him, that of St. John the Divine), Christians have answered that question with the word Eternity — the timeless state in which God exists. Timelessness is the only option, because it is the only thing that could lie outside — or if you prefer, around — the world of time, and provide a “place” for its beginning.

Timelessness, eternity, is where the question–tree is rooted. Timelessness, eternity, is where the material world sprang forth, in the only way in which it could spring forth — at once, and from the hand of a Creator. A being who exists in eternity exists in a timeless state, a state without beginning, midst, or end. So there is no reason to ask the question, Who created God?

If you retort, Can’t I say the same thing about the physical universe, and simply dispense with God?, the answer is plain: the physical universe, so far as we can tell, is always a place of time, space, and matter. There is no savor of eternity about it; no evidence of any ability of time, space, or matter to plan itself, arrange itself in mathematical order, begin the intricate dance of laws that govern physical reality from the smallest particle to the farthest star. Wherever we see planning, it is always associated with some conscious being. That is why we conceive of God (whether we believe in him or not) as a conscious, eternal being, as one who existed, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “before all worlds.”

If this be anthropomorphism, make the most of it. There’s nothing wrong with anthropomorphism, if it happens to be true. To imagine that God has certain characteristics that humans also have — consciousness, volition, and that mysteriousness, that unpredictability, that opacity to full explanation that we find in even our own best friends — is not by definition a philosophical offense. If you have a strong personality, which most libertarians do, you may tend to see the world as the workmanship of some other strong personality. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t, or that there isn’t any reason for your idea, beyond a primitive psychological projection.

But the kind of philosophical argument that interests most libertarians — like most other people — is the “moral” argument against the existence of a deity, or at least the kind of deity posited in the Judeo–Christian tradition.

David Hume states the argument succinctly in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, the great work of philosophic art that provides the substance of most contemporary atheist arguments. One of Hume’s dramatis personae suggests that it is pointless to worry about the existence of a God who obviously doesn’t worry about us: “His power, we allow, is infinite; whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal is happy; therefore, he does not will their happiness” (Hume 1986, p. 63). In other words, supposing that an amoral, merely intellectual “watchmaker God” might exist, why would he merit our attention?

My favorite response to this argument appears in one of the poems in Robert Browning’sMen and Women”. Browning’s spokesman, a Roman Catholic bishop of a skeptical and argumentative disposition, comments on what every true skeptic knows — the fact that neither believers nor nonbelievers are completely secure in their convictions. Believers have moments of doubt about their faith; nonbelievers have moments of doubt about their lack of faith. Questions keep coming up:

This good God — what he could do, if he would,

Would, if he could — then must have done[,] long since:

If so, when, where, and how?

(Browning 1898, lines 192–94)

Good questions! And it is precisely these questions that a historical religion, a religion based not on philosophical deduction but on empirical evidence of God’s work in history, tries to address. Its job is to provide the “when, where, and how” of what a good God “must have done, long since.” Christianity, with its story of God’s intervention in history in the 1st century A.D., is one such historical religion.

If we find God’s fingerprints on history, we should not be surprised if they give us proof of his existence while giving us only partial knowledge of his intentions. We shouldn’t assume that once we know something, we will know everything, and that we “shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Our working assumption can be nothing more than this: If we can find reasonably accurate accounts of God’s intervention, we will have an adequate ground for belief in him, just as we have an adequate ground for belief in many other basic facts of human history itself, despite the refusal of these facts to grant us total knowledge.

Few people refuse to believe that Socrates existed, although the evidence for his existence can be traced to the works of a very small number of authors, all of whom take obvious liberties with his story, and none of whom fully elucidates his unique and therefore enigmatic character. Plato admits as much, in the speech he attributes to Alcibiades in the “Symposium.” Socrates, says his would–be lover, “is like no other human being, either of the past or the present … . [T]his person is so peculiar, and so is the way he talks, that however hard you look you’ll never find anyone close to him” (Plato 1999, p. 61). We cannot expect that history will give us final evidence about the personality of God. Yet knowing something is a great deal better than knowing nothing.

It is perfectly true, as Yeager suggests, that no one has succeeded in fully explaining God or even the concept of God. Every Christian would agree, but in doing so would not be saying anything essentially different from what I say when I admit that I lack any fully formed idea of how my transmission works — though I have reason to believe, from my history as a driver, that there is such a thing and that it helps me get from Hillcrest to La Jolla, on most (but not all) mornings. The question isn’t whether we know all about God (or about our best friend, either); the question is whether such a Friend exists, and what evidence one finds for him in human history.

It’s curious to see how far Hume goes in making the transition from philosophical to historical approaches to religion. There is a great deal at stake in what he says, because it shows the curious flirtation between skepticism and dogmatism that is basic to the atheist position. Hume’s “Dialogues” admit that “a purpose, an intention, a design [in the universe] strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker.” They refer to the laws of nature and to the steady scientific pursuit of the reasons behind things: “[A]n anatomist who had observed a new organ or canal would never be satisfied till he had also discovered its use and intention” (Hume 1986, p. 77). Even today, one is hard pressed to find a discussion of biological evolution that does not include the language of purpose: maple trees used wingéd seeds to propagate their kind; chimpanzees evolved strong muscles in order to seize their prey.

But after this bow to natural philosophy, Hume has his chief spokesman slyly remark that philosophical skepticism is actually “the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.” Why? Because Humean skeptics understand that philosophy alone will never reveal the attributes of God. Skeptics must, therefore, look to God for some historical “revelation” of his “nature, attributes, and operations” (Hume 1986, p. 89). Yet as we know, any “believing Christian” is convinced that such an account (pace Hume) is already available, and it is found in the New Testament, a history of God’s revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Hume did not agree — and it is interesting to consider why.

His position was that any account of divine intervention is inherently unbelievable, because it relies on acceptance of the possibility of miracles, of the intrusion of the supernatural into the natural order. He reasoned that we can judge evidence only by experience, and that a miracle — which is, by definition, outside our regular, normal, and natural experience — has nothing to command our belief (Hume 1985).

I think I have stated Hume’s celebrated argument fairly, though I have chosen the kind of words that emphasize its flaw. It asserts that we must reject any experience that might alter our view of experience. His position is no longer skeptical, but dogmatic. He goes so far as to say that “the Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly,” because they “arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted” — yet the formation of ice was only marvelous, not miraculous. The miraculous could never acquire enough proof from experience or testimony (Hume 1985, 29–33).

It’s true: someone who had never heard of a temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit would have no business believing rumors of ice formation. But someone who saw ice form before his eyes, or received numerous reports, from independent sources, of ice forming somewhere, would have good reason to believe that ice could happen. How much more would belief be recommended by experiences bearing a close analogy to one’s experience of beings like oneself!

If someone contends, as astrologists are always contending, that people’s lives are morally influenced by the planets, I’ll have a lot of trouble believing him. I live on a planet, and I have never experienced any influence of that kind. I am unaware of any marginally reliable source who testifies that a planet spoke, gestured to, or otherwise affected him. But I have experienced the effects of friendship, and it does not surprise me that the Creator of the world should turn out to be someone like my own friends — unusual, unpredictable, highly individual, perhaps even inexplicable, yet interested enough in me to offer evidence that they care about my fate.

In short, if I see a “miracle” (such as the unlikely but strongly attested miracle of friendship), I will believe it. I may be insane, as Hume insinuates; but I won’t bank on his opinion. I can’t very well pronounce myself insane, and still trust my own judgment about my supposed insanity. And if I have good reason to trust your word, I will probably believe in your reports of “miracles,” especially if their apparent source is a being who bears a likeness to the beings I know. Atheists often explain religious belief by saying, “Of course, those people believe in God. I guess they need a friend.” Maybe so — and what of it? Does the fact that they need a friend, or that there are false friends in this world, or that people are often mistaken about their friends, mean that there is no such thing as friendship, and we should refuse to believe any reports of it? Would that be skepticism, or dogmatism?

I have no trouble conceding that reports of God’s interventions aren’t scientifically testable, any more than my report that I dined with my friend last night at 8 p.m. can be tested in the lab. Historical events happen only once, and our belief that they actually did happen must depend on testimony, not on laboratory experiments or on some process of a priori philosophic reasoning. If the events happened before photography was invented, we will have an even harder time verifying them; but that’s when the vast majority of historical events did happen. If God intervened in human history, the odds are that he did it a long time ago: “Then must have done, long since.”

When I open the New Testament, I see at least six independent, mutually corroborating accounts of God’s intervention in human history, through the life of Jesus (Cox 2006, pp. 5–12). The earliest of these accounts is reliably dated to about two decades after his death; the latest to about six decades after. Most are clearly based on still earlier sources. No one has solved the puzzle of how these stories could have taken the form they did, absent the events to which they refer. You can construct Rube Goldberg explanations, but as they grow more complicated, they also grow less credible.

There are clearly imperfections and disagreements in the New Testament accounts. If there weren’t, I would suspect their general accuracy, just as policemen suspect the accuracy of two identical accounts of the same traffic accident. But over the past 300 years of intensely skeptical research, the New Testament’s literary integrity and its tight grip on the events it purports to describe have been vindicated against the assaults of a hundred schools of theory–mongers. It’s not an accident that even such skeptical scholars as J.A.T. Robinson, who was determined to point out discrepancies and to re–date everything in the most radical way, emerged with findings that make the NT accounts look almost as plausible as they ever looked, and much closer to the events they describe (Robinson 1976).

Some people will study this evidence and feel compelled to believe, as I was. Others will find it insufficient. But now, at least, we are debating the evidence on which Christianity actually bases its ideas. The fascinating thing to me is how seldom this debate arises. Many atheists are fonder of laughing at William Jennings Bryan, pretending that fundamentalists are about to take over the country, decrying the excesses of Joshua’s campaigns in Palestine, wondering where “Mrs. Cain” came from, reminiscing about the horrors of life in 15th–century Spain, debunking magic acts and flying saucers, and urging the latest, certain–to–be transitory cosmological speculations, than they are of considering Christianity’s basic claims. If they ever get to New Testament territory, they usually show themselves as naive as the History Channel, or the fundamentalist pastor down the street. And many Christians respond in kind, by defending every position, weak or strong, that the atheist wants to attack, instead of repairing to the historical evidence of a very simple proposition: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

But the central methodological question, preceding all specifically religious ones, remains: are you willing to consider alleged evidence of a “supernatural” event? When I ask my atheist friends this question, they almost invariably answer No. They believe dogmatically that the natural world (as currently understood, of course) is all there is, and all there could possibly be, and that there could never be any valid counter–evidence.

This makes things very easy. We can part as friends, without bothering to debate anything of consequence. Throughout the Western world, both popular and intellectual culture are tilting that way. Religion is increasingly considered a “faith tradition” (”In my faith tradition, we have our Sabbath on Sunday; in your faith tradition, you fire–bomb your enemies as they emerge from a rival mosque”) instead of a subject for serious intellectual consideration and controversy.

My dissertation adviser used to say that he knew how to tell whether a work of past literature was alive or not: “If it’s assigned for class, it’s still alive; if it’s not, it’s dead.” Roughly speaking, he was right. But what, in our culture, is “assigned for class” in the field of religion? How many college graduates are familiar with even the most basic arguments for and against the majority religion of the West, or any other religion, for that matter?

America remains the most devoutly and actively Christian nation in the world, but American Christians know less about religion than they ever did before. And on this subject, the intellectual sophistication of atheists and agnostics is even less remarkable. It sparkles on the mountain peaks, as in Yeager’s essay, but the trails below are dusty. One anecdote sums it up. An acquaintance of mine, a professor at an elite university, is a scientific atheist. After attending the baptism of a child, the professor remarked, “It was OK, but I was surprised at how religious it was.” This is an image of post–Christian America.

There are a variety of plausible opinions about the final result of this blank denial of religious belief, or even curiosity about religious belief. So far as we know, religion has been a fundamental part of all human societies. We have no historical experience of the ways in which an absence of religion, over any extended period of time, might influence a civilization.

As Yeager reminds us, we do have examples of societies that have gone completely haywire under the influence of religious cults. For many people, such as Christopher Hitchens in his most recent book, this is good enough evidence that religion is simple “poison.” On similar evidence, he might have reached a similar conclusion about atheism. In the name of an atheistic philosophy, Lenin, Mao, and Stalin each slaughtered their compatriots by the millions. Much the same can be said of the French revolutionaries who carved “Death Is an Eternal Sleep” on the portals of cemeteries, and of Hitler, whose private conversations showed him as much an enemy of Christianity as he was of Judaism (Hitler 2000, throughout).

Of course, any evil philosophy can be acquitted, in the minds of its followers, by an appeal to its essential ideas. In that way of thinking, “Marx can’t be blamed for Stalin’s regime; Stalin wasn’t a real Marxist.” But the difference is this: the materialist programs of Marx, Hitler, and Robespierre could never be realized without force and violence. The ideas of Jesus and Paul were very different. Jesus preached the individual’s reconciliation with God; he had no political agenda, and he rebuked his followers when they visualized themselves as rulers (Matthew 20:20–28). Paul preached Jesus’ gospel of love, and added the idea of freedom from Old Testament law — the idea of freedom, a fortiori, from all law (Galatians 1–5). If you tell me that a logical means of realizing such ideals is the formation of a monarchical church that tortures and kills all who oppose it, or the organization of busybodies into political groups to harass their neighbors, I can only say that you might as well arraign James Madison for trying to create an omnipotent state. Modern politicians have tried to do that, while invoking the names of the founding fathers, but no one should take them seriously as representatives of the great American tradition.

Similarly skeptical views can be taken of modern “Islamic” applications of Mohammed’s ideas, of latter–day “Taoist” applications of Taoism, and so forth. But there is a feature of Christian ideas that deserves to be emphasized. Christianity can never honestly and permanently depart from the founding documents that are its source and evidence; and in these documents, the books of the New Testament, there is no attempt to invoke force in support of religion. Instead, there is every attempt to separate belief from force and even from government. There is not a syllable in the New Testament commanding Christians to persecute their enemies, or, in fact, to have anything to do with politics. “My kingdom,” Jesus told the judge who condemned him, “is not of this world” (John 18:36). If you choose to worship Huitzilopochtli, and call him Christ, that’s your business; but it’s no reason why I should call you brother.

In the four gospels, we see Jesus crucified by the secular and religious establishments of his time. In the Revelation, we see, symbolically and dramatically enhanced, the struggle between the state and individual belief, in the conflict between Church and Empire. Throughout the New Testament, we see an overwhelming emphasis on individuals and individual decisions (Cox 2006, pp. 30–37). The New Testament stories insist on the radical differences between people who, from an outward or materialist perspective, we would expect to be the same: the two sisters, Mary and Martha; the two brothers in the parable of the prodigal son; the members of Jesus’ own family (Luke 10:38–42, Luke 15, John 7:5). These stories also insist on the powers of judgment inherent in the individual mind: “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter” (Acts 17:32).

But what conditions are necessary to maintain the moral order in which individuals are allowed to function without let or hindrance? Suppose, at night on a deserted street, I encounter an opponent — a purveyor of atheism, perhaps. I ask myself, “Why shouldn’t I just rob and kill him?”, and I start ransacking my bag of philosophical ideas to see what utilitarianism or Platonism or Objectivism or the Nicomachean Ethics has to say on the subject. Anyone who found that I had to do that, in order to decide not to rob and murder someone — or to form a political party that would do the job for me — would make sure never to meet me on any deserted street.

The good thing is that few people in our society have to resort to this kind of philosophical inquiry. At least in America, the world’s most Christian nation, the vast majority of people never even consider the possibility of liquidating their ideological opponents, commercial competitors, or religious adversaries. I think that this is because we were taught — as during many generations, Western children have often been taught — that all people have moral standing in the eyes of God, a Person who cares about other persons. We learned it at our mother’s knee: even though Catholics, or Protestants, or Democrats, or Republicans, or blacks or whites or rich or poor or southerners or northerners or Objectivists or socialists may not be as “good” as “we” are, God doesn’t want us to hurt or destroy them.

This is a very limited moral message, and its application has sometimes been absurdly limited. Christians have fought wars like other people. Christians, like atheists, have fiendishly persecuted their enemies. But Christians were also the first people in the world to campaign against slavery. They were the first people in the world to campaign for women’s equality. From their older brothers, the Jews, they borrowed the idea of the God–commissioned prophet, an idea that established a legitimate social role for individuals who find themselves in responsible moral opposition to their communities. They took this idea, and they made the most of it. Not always for good, of course: pig–headed, self–righteous “prophets” are the curse of every moral movement. The same kind of people who might have been Hebrew prophets have often become obnoxious Christian evangelists (e.g., St. Stephen), bigoted puritans, ranting atheists, supercilious spokesmen for political thinktanks, and even editors of libertarian journals. Every ideal contains an enormous potential for abuse.

Yet it was in Christendom that the founding documents of a religious regime announced that God’s kingdom is not, in fact, a franchise of this world. It was in Christendom that the church competed for its right to exist distinct from the state, and full separation of church and state was at last accorded the force of law. It was in Christendom that God was declared the “author of liberty” and the guarantor of individual rights in a way that has never been witnessed in any other culture.

In every Islamic country except Turkey, the notion that religion is not the business of the state never seriously occurs to anyone. In every Christian or quasi–Christian country, this is the default position — not because most people keep laboriously reasoning it out for themselves, but because they imbibed it from their parents, along with the respect for individual life and property that is likewise enshrined in the New Testament documents. “Friend, I do thee no wrong,” says the employer in Jesus’ parable, resisting demands that he fork over more wages than he had contracted to pay. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matthew 20:13–15). It’s because the religiously sanctioned idea of individualism and private property is so prominent in our culture that libertarians don’t have to start arguing for those values from the ground up.

So I believe that Leland Yeager is asking an important question when he wonders about the fate of our civilization in a post–religious age. I wonder too; though I believe I reach different conclusions, or come to different speculations. I do not suppose that people’s lives can be much improved, intellectually or politically, by a world in which the longing for infinity, a longing that seems endemic to humankind, is directed toward merely finite objects. In Europe, the steady decay of Christianity has been accompanied with every repulsive permutation of such finite objects: the cult of Napoleon and other Great Men, the adulation of race and nationality, the worship of science and “scientific” social planning, the childish trust in Theosophy and other pseudo–religious cults, the sacrificial devotion to communism and fascism, the idiocy of anti–Semitism, and now the obsession with celebrity, sport, fashion, sex, and “career” — together with the hysterical self–pity that blossoms when these false religions fail to satisfy: the violent self–pity and self–entitlement that discovered a goddess in Princess Di.

The political effects of a post–religious age, if that is what we are entering, will be various, but on the whole discouraging. We can expect to see a decline in certain kinds of fanaticism. But we will see the rise of others, unrestrained by the inherited religious conviction that there are certain things one simply should not do. We can anticipate much more of what we are already seeing: the evaporation of those high aspirations and profound tensions — that moral seriousness about oneself and others, that stirring sense of the importance of the individual life, seen in profile against the splendor of God’s universe — which inspired the greatest accomplishments of Western music, art, and literature. Elton John is, after all, a very poor substitute for Bach.

It is true, of course, that atheism has occasionally produced its own great works — at least in the field of literature — although much of the atheist literary accomplishment, from “Anthem” to “Zarathustra”, is an attempt to surpass Christianity by imitating its effects and inverting a few (though not most) of its values. I agree with Yeager that the glories of Christian art do not constitute specific proof of the ideas they express. But there remains the question of whether any way of thinking that is largely false can produce high art for very long periods of time.

However that may be, an atheist culture, in which man’s goals were conceived as the maximization of “enjoyment,” and immortality as the physical propagation of one’s genetic material, would not be an authentic culture for me. I wonder, indeed, whether an authentic “I” would continue to exist in such a world. The methods that the West currently uses to identify, evaluate, and enjoy the individual self are largely indebted to the West’s majority religion, which consists, in practice, of the endeavor to see yourself against a cosmos that is also looking back at you. This is the great stage on which Western individualism has acted. Will the West’s customary way of seeing the world finally cease? Will all the world be Sweden, where you can do what you want, so long as your neighbors don’t object?

I doubt it. Christianity began as an insurgency of religious commitment in a pagan world, where the practical thing to do in case someone disrupted local customs and the smooth functioning of the government was to nail him to a cross. And Christianity has always succeeded in reviving itself, often against virtually incredible odds. But whatever happens, a believer must always agree with John Adams, writing in his extreme old age (1822, p. 580): “We need not trouble ourselves about these things nor fret ourselves because of Evil doers[,] but safely trust the ruler with his skies.”

Ampers&nd

Editor’s Notes:
 •  Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), is considered the father of scholasticism, which sought to reconcile the teachings of the Church and of Aristotle. (Return to Text)
 • Descartes (1596-1658), a French philosopher and mathematician, who argued that while man may doubt, he cannot doubt that he exists (”I think, therefore I am”). (Return to Text)
 • Leibniz (1646-1716) was a German mathematician and philosopher, among whose many contributions are considerations of free will, evil, and the nature of space and time. (Return to Text)
 • Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) was an American mathematician and logician, perhaps best known for Godel’s incompleteness theorem. (Return to Text)
 • Ayn Rand (1905-1982), author of Atlas Shrugged, founder of Objectivism (see note below), defined “rational self-interest” as the purpose of life. See also here. (Return to Text)
 • Objectivism, briefly stated, teaches that reality is an objective fact accessible by reason. For more, please see see here. (Return to Text)
 • St. John the Divine, also John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, by tradition the “beloved disciple” of Jesus (John 13:23), author of Revelation. (Return to Text)
 • Nicene Creed, adopted in 325 AD by the Council of Nicea, is a formulation of Christian belief. (Return to Text)
 • Anthropomorphism ascribes human form or attributes to a non-human form, like a deity. (Return to Text)
 • David Hume (1711-1776) , a Scottish philosopher and more, is one of the great thinkers in the English language. Please see also here. (Return to Text)
 • Robert Browning (1812-1889) wrote some of Victorian England’s most beautiful and moving poetry. Please see also here. (Return to Text)
 • J. A. T. Robinson, an Anglican bishop, is author of Redating The New Testament. (Return to Text)
 • Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), author, journalist, and iconoclast, is perhaps best known currently for his book God Is Not Great. (Return to Text)
 • Huitzilopochtli, sometimes Uitzilopochtli, is the Aztec god of the sun and war. (Return to Text)
 • Platonism After Plato, the doctrine that physical objects are impermanent representations of permanent Ideas or Realities. (Return to Text)
 • Nicomachean Ethics is a work by Aristotle; in its words: “the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim”. (Return to Text)
 • Theosophy is a mystical assertion of the unity of mind and spirit. See also The Theosophical Society. (Return to Text)
 • John Adams The quotation is from correspondence between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. For the letter, please see here, for the man, here. (Return to Text)

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