The other day I listed 50 facts and features of reality that Christianity explains better than any other worldview I know of. Every worldview has a way of explaining these 50 things, but only Christianity does so without having to force-fit these facts into its philosophy. Other worldviews take one or more of them to be unreal in some sense; only Christianity takes their reality seriously.
This is obviously true of the items I listed under “History” in that article, which are all directly related to Christianity. If they’re all true, then Christianity is true. Their truth is controversial, though, so I’m going to save them for a later discussion when I can address them more at length.
This article instead is about several things from that list that we all know uncontroversially to be real. (You’ll see as we go along that I’m making a case for biblical religion broadly speaking, not specifically for Christianity. More on that below.)
The Human Condition
- Our moral sense
- Our sense that we were meant to be better than we are
The World Around Us
- The real existence of goodness
- The real existence of beauty
- The real lack of goodness and beauty, i.e., the existence of evil
Focusing On Familiar Territory
Now I need to say that when I sat down to write this it turned out to be a lot more involved than I thought it would be. I considered several ways of approaching it. I thought about beginning with the ancient Greeks’ questions and proposals regarding unity and diversity, but there’s too much unfamiliar material there to use it as a starting point.
I wrote a few paragraphs on the Indian conception of maya (illusion) but as I studied it I found that maya was too diverse and complex an idea to begin to cover here — especially since I know so little about Eastern religions. I realized that I was proceeding from a mere surface understanding of maya, and that it would be irresponsible to draw strong conclusions about it here.
If my beginner’s-level understanding is approximately correct, or in the neighborhood of the truth, then what I’m about to say about illusion applies to Hinduism and Buddhism, but that is for me a very big “if.” Someone may want to defend Eastern religion in one form or another here, and if you do I’ll dive more deeply into it with you.
For now, though, I’m going to stick with more familiar territory, both for you and for me: naturalistic atheism, the view that reality consists of matter and energy interacting in the consistent regular fashion we call natural law, and nothing else, especially no spiritual reality.
The Strangeness of Naturalistic Atheism
For this view (which I’ll shorten to just “naturalism,” asking forgiveness from readers who know it has other meanings in other contexts), these features of reality are all problematic.
Naturalism takes rationality to be a product of the human brain, which either invented or discovered the axioms of logic. If the brain invented these laws, then there is no reason to think they have any relation to the rest of reality; if the brain discovered them, then where in the world of interacting matter and energy do they reside? And if our thinking apparatus is a purely material cause-and-effect machine, how then does an immaterial cause — a logical inference — insert itself into our reasoning? Rationality has little place in a naturalistic world, but you and I know it’s real.
What does it mean to be conscious? Who or what is the conscious entity we’re associated with? We all perceive the answer to that to be, “I am the conscious entity.” But this is difficult, on natural terms. Consciousness includes awareness of sensation, thought, intention, and so on. What is it within our brains that is aware in the relevant sense? Dennett spoke of a “theater of the mind,” but it’s very difficult on naturalistic terms to define who’s watching it. Some atheistic philosophers (the Churchlands, Nagel, Rosenberg, and in a certain sense Dennett) have concluded that consciousness is an illusion. You and I know better.
Meaning and Purpose
Naturalism entails that there is no purpose in all reality except what we define for ourselves. You and I know better.
Our Moral Sense
In a purely material universe nothing can be good or evil, right or wrong in itself — not even any human action, for all actions are determined by physical forces at an atomic level. Right and wrong are cultural constructions at best. But that means that any culturally constructed value could be good, including (for example) slavery in the old South and the Holocaust in Germany. You and I know better.
Our Sense That We Were Meant To Be Better Than We Are
This is another way of saying, we know something isn’t right about us. We know that even though wars, racism, slavery, and injustice of every kind are perfectly normal in human history, things shouldn’t be this way. Naturalism supposes that this sense of wrongness is a by-product of evolution, a mental mechanism for advancing our tribes and our species. But we know better: we know that wrong is wrong.
The Real Existence of Goodness and Beauty
Naturalism takes it that beauty is completely, entirely, 100% in the eye of the beholder; that we’re conditioned by evolution to regard certain things as having beauty in them, but that the beauty is only in our attitude toward them. Thus it’s technically wrong to say, “That is really beautiful.” We know better than that; we know there is beauty in the world outside ourselves. The same is true for goodness: some acts are intrinsically good, and we know it.
The Real Lack of Goodness and Beauty, i.e., the Existence of Evil
See “Our moral sense” above. Naturalism has no explanatory category for anything being wrong or evil in itself; acts are only wrong or evil if they are judged to be that way by contingent cultural or personal standards, or if they fail to advance our population’s reproductive success, as if that were an actual good in itself rather than being the contingent result of chance plus time acting on previous populations. There is nothing actually evil in naturalism; but we know better.
The Better Explanation
Now, I haven’t said that none of these things can be explained under naturalism. I’ve only said that we know better. Naturalism can explain consciousness under the category of “illusion,” but we know better. Naturalism can explain right and wrong under categories of cultural and individual preference, but we know better than to think that’s the whole story.
Biblical religion has a better answer than that. For these purposes that includes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as far as it follows the Old and New Testament understandings of God and man. Obviously that means I’m not arguing here for Christianity but for biblical theism. That’s good enough for now. It gets us partway there, if not all the way.
I have three points to make as I bring this to a conclusion.
- Biblical religion has no conceptual problems whatsoever with consciousness, mind, rationality, good and evil, purpose, meaning, beauty, or morality, since these things are at the heart of all reality in the person of God.
- Naturalism can explain all these things, but its explanations deny and defy everything we know to be true about ourselves and the world we live in. They don’t account for all the facts, especially the facts of our own experience. So they’re not good explanations.
- Naturalistic atheism is often considered a default position, the natural way to regard reality. Theism is often considered an extraordinary belief requiring extraordinary evidence. But I think it’s the other way around. Naturalistic atheism is a strange and extraordinary belief, in that it implies that there’s something not quite real about consciousness, mind, rationality, good and evil, purpose, meaning, beauty, and morality. Don’t we all know better than that?
This is strong evidence for biblical religion. I’ll do more work later to narrow it down to Christianity.
Image Credit(s): Zoe Margolis.