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Atheism and the Experience of God (1)

Fr. John Breck

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Books arguing for atheism are topping the best-seller lists these days, and more and more people seem to be listening. Those who take issue usually try to fight scientific dogma with religious dogma. They would perhaps do better if they appealed to the unprovable but, to those who give their lives for it, undeniable experience of the living God.

The names Dennett, Dawkins and Harris have recently become well-known in both atheistic and fundamentalist circles. 1.Their writings and interview musings have elicited a heated response, especially from people who are convinced that the world was created some six thousand years ago and that the Bible was virtually dictated, word for word, by the Holy Spirit. On the one side we are offered scientific (read "secular") explanations for everything from the Big Bang and the origin of species, to human consciousness and life-after-death experiences. On the other, we are given evidence, if not proof, for the existence of God either by a literal interpretation of Scripture, or by such "useless" realities (in evolutionary terms) as human altruism and the nearly universal belief in supernatural power, however it may be perceived and venerated.

Between these two extremes are a significant number of scientists and others of an intellectual bent, who defend notions of "intelligent design" (ID) or of "theistic evolution." The representatives of ID have been rightly accused of putting forth a sophisticated version of the "God of the gaps" theory. Many phenomena, they hold, are so complex (the human eye, for example, or the system of blood coagulation) that they could not have arisen spontaneously, as products of "natural selection." We need to remember, however, that many things once considered to be scientifically inexplicable (the movement of heavenly bodies, the conception of a child) now have a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation. In the future, scientists may find what is arguably a "material" explanation for these other phenomena as well. As scientific knowledge advances, the gaps God fills become increasingly narrow.

Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is perhaps the most articulate representative today of the theory of "theistic evolution." In his deservedly acclaimed book, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he develops a synthesis between science and religion that rejects both young-earth creationism, typical of today's Christian fundamentalism, and the theory of Intelligent Design. To Collins (who draws from the writings of C.S. Lewis), existence of the universal Moral Law and altruistic self-sacrifice -- which cannot be explained by the laws of evolution -- clearly point to the existence of a benevolent Creator who relates personally to human beings. His argument is multi-faceted (affirming the Anthropic principle and appealing to the "language of God" revealed by the human genome), but to some minds it also represents a "God of the gaps" approach. Perhaps, they argue, the "moral law" and altruism can also be explained scientifically, as due to the activity of neurons, as the simple products of body chemistry. If so, then the "God hypothesis" once again appears to be irrelevant.

This entire debate between what has been called "the New Atheism" and traditional Christianity calls up some basic observations. First, it's clear that the world is vastly more complex than either scientists or theologians can imagine, much less describe. From the interplay between matter and energy to varieties of mystical experience, reality in its fullness simply cannot be grasped, either by human reason or by religious intuition. This is why the great theologians of the Church have always declared that God is beyond existence, indeed, beyond any conception we might have of Him (hence the importance in Orthodoxy of "apophatic theology," the via negative that alone leads to true knowledge of God).

Then again, it should be obvious that atheists, by definition, deny what they know nothing about. They suppose, erroneously, that if they have no verifiable knowledge of God, then no one else can have any either. This conclusion is grounded in the conviction that knowledge can be acquired only through scientific inquiry. Science is indispensable if we are to understand empirical reality. The point is, however, that there is a Reality beyond the empirical, which remains essentially inaccessible to rational, scientific investigation. Yet this Reality, too, can be known and even participated in by persons who approach it in a particular way, with a particular perspective and disposition, which we will discuss briefly in our next column.

In fact the "God" most atheists deny should be denied -- rejected as a mere caricature -- by any informed Christian. Many years ago the British theologian J.B. Phillips wrote an impressive little book titled Your God is Too Small. What seems to lie behind the atheism of many people, it seems, is less a perceived conflict between science and religion than a visceral rejection of a God who is simply too small, and who consequently is not God at all.

It really shouldn't trouble us that these "new atheists" are currently making headlines, even if the motive behind some of their writings is to create scandal, break taboos, and reap profits. In fact, we should be grateful for the impact they are having. They force us to take a long, hard look at our own conception of God and to ask ourselves whether that conception, that treasured image often retained from childhood, is perhaps also "too small." Insofar as it is, we unwittingly place ourselves in the camp of non-believers. We align ourselves with the very atheists whose non-belief we reject. For in that case, our faith is in a god or gods of our own making, rather than in the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ as both Creator and Redeemer. "This is the true God and eternal life," St John tells us (1 Jn 5:20), who embodies infinite power and glory, compassion and love.

1. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Sam Harris, The End of Faith. Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and Letter to a Christian Nation. See also the article by Gary Wolf, "The Church of the Non-Believers," in Wired 14:11 (Nov. 2006).

The Very Reverend John Breck is a professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Church of America website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 23-Jan-07



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