For the third time this week, someone said to me, "I'm not really a religious person," so I'd like to respond to what might be a common misunderstanding of the Christian religion. It made me wonder how a "religious" person is different from a regular person. If these three friends represented only anecdotal accounts, it wouldn't be worth blogging about, but I fear it represents an underlying assumption that's widely held.
Last month, famous biologist and UCI professor Dr. Francisco Ayala donated $1.5 million dollars to a UCI genetics program. Dr. Ayala was awarded the Templeton Prize in March which comes with the cash prize matching this gift he gave to the University. The Templeton Foundation was impressed by Ayala's work in solving the problem of faith and science. In reference to this, Ayala told the press "We don't have belief in evolution; belief is accepting something for which we have no evidence" ($1.5 Million Dollar Prize Donated to UCI, Orange County Register, April 22, 2010, Local 3) So, according to Ayala, once we relegate faith to the private and personal realm, and we allow science to determine the reality of our daily lives, the problem goes away. In short, science is objective; religious belief is not.
Is religion something we need to approach differently than other things in life like what we believe about the food we choose to eat or oncoming traffic we try to avoid? Do we need to accept claims of faith without any evidence while other decisions need to be verified by science? Or should religious beliefs no longer be given a free pass despite the evidence? In response to Dr. Ayala and my three friends, I suggest we consider three reasons why ignoring the evidence is an unnecessary, and even dangerous, proposition when it comes to spiritual things.
#1 Testability :
While some religious traditions lack a verifiable starting point, the fundamental claims of Christianity fall firmly in line with other alleged events in world history. Any amount of study into the various world religions shows how different their main claims are. Sure, certain moral truths may transcend across many faiths, but the origins and moral justifications are radically different, even contradictory. So, before we get started, it needs to be clear that our present concern examines Christianity on it's own merits rather than bundling it along with all other religions as critics often do. But first, let's see how testable Naturalism and Postmodernism are.
Naturalism prides itself on testing everything empirically by means of the scientific method. This philosophy has serious limits. First of all, the test only applies to observable and repeatable events in nature. Therefore, by definition, Naturalism cannot make a determination on supernatural events. Nor can it say anything about the fields of philosophy, ethics, or even history. This should take nothing away from the value empirical research, but just to show it cannot be used to make moral or religious decisions one way or the other. Naturalism can't accept or deny the existance of God. What's worse, Naturalism itself cannot be tested by its own criteria. The claim that the scientific method is the best way to determine truth, can't be tested empirically. So we need to import non-Naturalistic ideas to support Naturalism which defeats it from the start.
The Postmodernism rejection of our ability to discern objective reality in any meaningful way has obvious problems. Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism share this basic theory that the real world is ultimately illusional. Postmodernism's criteria for truth is complicated and circular. If Postmodernism denies truth exists in the first place, it would be meaningless to establish a way to find it. But even if Postmodernism established a criteria for establishing truth, it would be going against the very foundations of Postmodernism which denies truth can be found. Therefore, if Postmodernism could ever show itself to be the best criteria for discovering truth, Postmodernism would be refuted.
For Christianity, the testable claim is the resurrection of Jesus. Put simply, if this event didn't happen, the faith turns out to be a big embarrassment. In Paul's words, we would be "most to be pitied" (1 Cor 15:19b). A robust defense has been echoed enough elsewhere (as in books like Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, The Son Rises, The Jesus Legend, and The Resurrection of the Son of God,) and in Aaron Brake's recent essay. So, my purpose here is only to point out that the claims can be tested. If this weren't the case, we wouldn't expect that atheist scholars accept facts surrounding the gospel accounts as much as they do.
One thing that binds us all together is that we're all in the same boat. Sure, our particular circumstances and geography may differ, but we're similar in the sense that we're given a limited amount of time on earth with the ability to ask the big questions of life. The world is full of beauty and people we love, but we know everyone is flawed and subject to pain. The differences in which various worldviews account for these basic facts of human existence are vast. To keep things simple, we'll examine three main ones: Postmodernism, Naturalism, and Christianity.
If we were to accept Postmodernism, debating anything becomes meaningless. When no belief is true or false, there is nothing that can be affirmed. After all, what sense would it make to believe in a proposition if it's denial is equally true? Even when a new-age guru claims to have all the answers, the postmodern/eastern worldview also rejects the possibility that he's actually right about any of them. In Postmodernism, we can't even begin to ask the big questions of life because, according to its own criteria, our perception of reality itself is called into question.
Naturalism, or the belief in only natural processes, rejects anything supernatural outright. Accordingly, believers in Naturalism are forced by their presuppositions to find natural means to explain all phenomenon. As a result, any claims to the miraculous are rejected with the assumption that some natural cause is always to blame. The origin of the universe (space, time, matter) is most commonly explained by either the steady state (universe just always existed) or multiverse (our universe was born from a previous one) theories. However, the latest discoveries in cosmology, astrophysics, and long standing laws of logic in direct contradiction to these theories. Accounts of the resurrection of Jesus also pose a problem for them. The historical reliability of Christian Scripture, the teachings and sufferings of people claiming to see Jesus alive after his death, and the growth of the Christian faith cannot be explained by adequate natural processes. The purpose of life and moral distinctions are meaningless if all begins and ends within a purely natural world. So, while naturalism improves upon Postmodernism in that it at least offers an explanation, we need to see how these other two views stack up against Christianity.
The traditional Christian claim is that God, the creator of the universe, reflects the perfect standard of goodness by his very nature, created mankind so that they may seek him and reign with him forever, and became a human person to fulfill his promise to conquer all evil. While each of these claims must have adequate reasons, the material is there to directly answer life's biggest questions: origin of the universe, purpose of mankind, and the source of objective moral values. Again, these arguments have been made extensively elsewhere, but perhaps a quick view of their correlates demonstrates their plausibility.
If the universe had a beginning as the overwhelming evidence suggests the existance of an agent who transcends nature. Any such agent capable of creating the universe must possess such attributes as timeless, non-contingent, volitional, immaterial, and all-powerful. Though these attributes have been granted to God by theologians for millenia, modern science and logic shows them to be absolutely necessary. Any cause of the universe must possess these characteristics. Based on what we know of our universe today, the traditional God of theism is a prime suspect.
If nothing beyond nature exists, no purpose exists. We are all just part of a process left only to our own opinion of worth. For in the end, all are doomed to destruction for no ultimate purpose beyond what we make for ourselves. But if Jesus came to invite us into God's kingdom, then our purpose is known. That Jesus announced the coming kingdom of God is undisputed in New Testament scholarship today. So the question is: was he right? Jesus was known, even by his critics as possessing supernatural powers. His greatest sign, and climax of the New Testament Scriptures, was his resurrection from the dead. If he rose from the dead in vindication of his claims, then we are justified in believing him about God's purpose for mankind. Paul tells us Jesus was the "first fruits" indicating our destiny is to follow him into everlasting life.
If there is no perfectly moral standard, there is no evil. For evil is the derision from the good. It's true that good and evil could be thought of in a subjective sense, but that would limit meaning to the arbitrary whim of individuals. There would be no determinate way of deciding who was right and who is wrong when it comes to moral questions. But we know evil exists. We see some things that are morally apalling and morally praiseworthy. Cultures where women are oppressed versus those where women are treated fairly wouldn't have any moral difference unless we have an objective standard to measure them. For instance, Paul explains that to God, there is no inequality between men and women. Therefore, it would be objectively wrong to treat them unfairly. Christianity provides an explanation for moral values.
Perhaps the best way to know if someone believes something is watching how they behave. We all know the familiar truism our mothers' taught: "actions speak louder than words." The illustration was made most clear to me after hearing about a stunt man applauded for walking a wheel barrow across a tight rope above Niagara Falls. In the summer of 1860, Jean Francois Gravelot asked the crowd if he should try to repeat the stunt by walking back to the other side, and they cheered back, "You can do it!" "We believe in you!" Then, when Gravelot looked towards the crowd and asked, "Who will sit in the wheel barrow?", the cheers fell silent. It's easier said than done.
When it comes to living consistently, Postmoderns fail miserably. No one goes through life expecting everything to be an illusion. There are consequences to getting things wrong and we all know it. Crossing the street without looking, drinking motor oil instead of milk, or burning money in lieu of firewood are each significant errors and come with real consequences. However, if the postmodernist is to examine life as he does religion, this is the behavior we would expect to see. But obviously no one does this.
Naturalists are no more consistent when it comes to applying their behavior consistently across religious and daily life. We all behave as though there is a distinction between shaking hands and punching someone in the face. We also act as though there is some ultimate meaning to our existence. But if no moral standard exists, and if there's no objective purpose for our lives, why do we pretend there is? If morality serves only as an innate illusion to fool us into better survival habits, as atheist philosopher Michael Ruse suggests, we still don't have an answer. Naturalists often arbitrarily assert the concept of survival as some sort of ultimate good. But unless some transcendant standard gives value to it, the goal of survival remains without objective meaning as well.
Christianity begs us to approach its claims as we would any other investigation. Surely, we are have biased perspectives that come with presuppositions. But that doesn't mean we can't know anything at all. It just means we need to be willing to enter the investigation ready to abandon ideas that turn out to be implausible.
I don't know about you, but if Francisco Ayala is right about religious belief having no evidence, I want to know why anyone believes in religion at all. It seems to me, you can only really believe in something if you have reasons for that belief. As it turns out, being a "religious" person doesn't amount to much unless the believing just means hoping. To the contrary, Christian belief doesn't require such wishful thinking, but rather is more testable, explicable, and livable than the two of the other major worldviews today. So next time you hear someone refer to a "religious" person, ask them how religious beliefs are different than any other belief.
We should all be bothered by such naive statements made by influential people as Dr. Ayala. If Ayala's claims about religious belief are as ridiculous as they seem from this assessment, why is he given such accolades? If a medical doctor praised the habits of an overweight, drug-addicted, stuntman by commending his lifestyle, we would strip him of his medical license. If an accountant advises his client to stop paying taxes, we would report him to the CPA board. So, when an educated theologian, philosopher, and scientist similarly religious belief regardless of it's truthfulness, perhaps we should strip him of the Templeton Prize. At the very least, we must not make the same mistake ourselves.