I wanted this post to be about all the scientific and philosophical reasons I believe in God, but I just couldn’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, I think all of that is worthwhile to think through. Far be it from me to denigrate Peter Kreeft or Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for God’s existence. People find all sorts of paths to God. And I know for a fact that at least one person has come to God by reading Aquinas. But I’m not that person. And these posts aren’t about what leads some people to believe in God. These are about what’s led me there.
But still, I can’t just ignore these things. In our day, with the advent of the New Atheism, I imagine someone reading these posts might wonder why I totally ignore atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens when talking about the debate over God. It’s not that I don’t find the debate fascinating. I do. You get someone like William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist, sparring with a Sam Harris, and I’m pulling out the popcorn. But after watching the debates, reading the articles, and buying the t-shirt, I can’t say any of it moves me much – either to God or away from Him.
Even I’ve wondered why. I have friends who can’t stomach Christianity anymore because it doesn’t match up with what science tells us about the world. And whether major philosophers agree with or laugh at the New Atheism, it has had a profound impact since those planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. But it hasn’t had much of an impact on me, and to help explain why, I’d like to write out what I imagine to be the typical conversation between a conservative Christian and an atheist today discussing proofs for God:
Atheist: Oh, Silly Christian, how can you believe in an invisible Spaghetti Monster – i.e., God?
Christian: Oh Snobbish Atheist, how can you look at the universe and think all the complex life we see today came from a single-celled organism?
Atheist: Just look at the geological record, Bozo Brain. Clearly we evolved over the course of billions of years into the magnificently complicated beings we are today. Natural selection! Evolution! Dinosaur bones!
Christian: The probabilities of that happening are 1 in 1 with an unbelievable amount of zeroes after it! Natural selection happens because of slight mutations in the DNA that happen from one generation to another. The vast majority of those mutations are horrible for the survival of the animal. It’s improbable, and indeed, inconceivable that evolution could be true! Or, if it is true, there must have been a higher power to guide it along.
Atheist: Probabilities are pointless! You are taking an observation about some mutations that happen today and extrapolating that back 5 billions years. We can’t possibly know whether it is more or less likely at a given time period that beneficial or non-beneficial mutations would occur.
Christian: Even if that were true (which it’s not, you Heathen), at best we have an oscillating universe which, even according to the most favorable models, has to come to an end – like a wind-up toy slowly stopping. If it has an end, it has to have begun at some point in the past. And if that is the case, how could it have begun if not with a tremendous amount of energy being put into the universe at the beginning? And if that is what had to happen, who put it there?
Atheist: You make too many assumptions. I don’t have time for your philosophical buffoonery! Look at the world. Where is God? I have no clue how exactly the universe began – and neither do you! At least I don’t rely on far-fetched fables to fulfill my fantastical fantasies about the far future. I’m a staunch believer in Scientism! You get what you get and don’t make up weird stories to fill the gaps in your understanding of the world.
This goes on for another 129 comments because, first off, it’s obviously a conversation being had on Facebook, and secondly, they’re just warming up. I promise you, I’m making fun of myself in that made-up conversation. Like I said, I find it fascinating. But here’s why, in my mind, it doesn’t matter: I partly agree with the snobbish atheist. Let me explain.
I once took an Intro to Philosophy class at community college. I know that makes me not at all an expert in philosophy, but after reading the writings of different people like David Hume, Kant, and Descartes, something became really clear: everyone was guessing. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise. And that’s not to say they aren’t educated guessers. But it seemed like no sooner would one philosopher say one thing than another philosopher would come up right after to contradict him. None of them agreed with each other. They all had a different take on life and good luck trying to pick out the truth in the middle of the cacophony of views.
With science, extrapolating the existence or non-existence of God gave me similar problems. Going back to my faux-atheist’s comment, I kind of feel that the universe is too big and it’s history too long to decipher an all-powerful God or gods behind it. Some would say that such a universe is proof enough. Kudos to them. I’m not one of them. Some think that because you can’t put God in a test-tube or conduct experiments on angels that means they don’t exist. I’m not one of them either.
But let’s say we did have air-tight philosophical arguments for or against God, and let’s say we did have scientific evidence that pushed the scale in favor of theists or atheists. What happens tomorrow? What happens when the new and improved argument comes down the pipe or the new and fantastic scientific discovery comes along that suddenly upends everything? What then? If we knew everything that could possibly be known about ourselves and the universe, then we could make a true and unassailable argument for or against God. But we don’t. So we can’t.
Which is why, by the way, everything we know – and I mean literally everything – is a matter of faith. Faith, in the Christian mind, is not belief in something that has no evidence for it – or even contrary evidence against it. Faith is taking the evidence you have and making a logical conclusion in one direction or another that you know could be wrong, but you don’t really believe is.
All that being said, the stars in the sky and the leaves on the trees don’t speak so much as they stare at us, beautiful but seemingly indifferent to our questions, “Where did you come from? Why are you here? Why am I here?” I see them now as a message of love and glory written by God into the world. But I don’t believe that because I see it clearly and obviously from pristine syllogisms or lab results. I believe God for other reasons, which I hope to get into in the next post.
The rest of this post is more like a footnote. If what I address in this footnote doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip it. To others of you, however, it may appear that I side-step the whole question of science vs. religion. Doesn’t the Bible speak of the world being created in six days? Doesn’t it speak of a worldwide flood and an unbelievable amount of different animals being put on a boat? Aren’t Christians – and especially Catholics – who say “let’s not take everything in Genesis literally” really just moving the target?
These are worthwhile questions. It’s one thing to say, as I have tried to in this post, that the question of God is such a big one that getting to a real certain knowledge of Him through nature or reasoning seems incredibly difficult. It’s another thing entirely to look at the plain words of the Bible and see that they simply don’t correlate to our most compelling models of how the world came to be formed and how we evolved.
But I don’t think Christians – and especially Catholics – are in as much of a bind as it would appear at first. I’ll address the six-day creation narrative and Noah’s flood briefly here, but what I say here might be expanded to explain other conundrums in Scripture.
In Genesis 1, the account says that God created pretty much everything in six days. The text seems to be almost formulaic: God decides that that day he will make something, speaks it into existence, and then that day is wrapped up with the words, “and there was evening and there was morning the [X] day.” When I was a Protestant, that last phrase in particular was taken to mean that the author really wanted the reader to see these as literal days.
But did he? Was making that statement “and there was evening and there was morning” meant to communicate that they were literal days, or was it meant to be something more like a poetic device? As one pastor put it, it sounds almost “sing-songy”: repetition for effect. As early as the 3rd and 4th centuries (well before the theory of Evolution gained traction, obviously), major theologians like Origen and St. Augustine* were pushing for a non-literal interpretation of that first chapter of Genesis. Interpreting it non-literally wasn’t the only way of interpreting the passages, and the Catholic Church really doesn’t care whether you think Evolution is true or not, but seeing the creation account as non-literal is not outside the pale of Catholic orthodoxy.
So what about Noah’s flood? Didn’t God say He’d wipe out all the animals? How could Noah fit all the different species in his ark? And how about a flood that covers all the earth? You notice I’m using the word “all” a lot? Here’s the issue with that: the word “all” in the Bible quite often does not literally mean “all”. There are a number of passages that show this. I’m not going to go into them here, but it’s a question of semantics. So no, the flood could very well not have covered the whole earth. All the species of animals may not have come into the ark. And if that’s the case, it’s not scientifically impossible for a man to have built a boat, put a lot of animals in it, and weathered what may have been a tremendous flood. For a more in-depth look at this point, read this helpful article. And then you can come back here and argue with me in the comments section.
All of this is to say that the Bible is not quite so easy to interpret as a lot of people think it is. Theologians are trying to decipher the messages from it’s texts written in a language that is not their own, in a culture they have no immediate familiarity with, thousands of years removed from them. The author of Genesis almost certainly wasn’t intending to write a science book. Many of it’s passages may have been meant to communicate more obvious points: God made everything, there was a big flood, we have a connection with Him. Even numbers, which we would consider to be very definite things, are not really that definite in the Old Testament. Saying “forty years later”, for example, may not actually mean a literal “forty years.” It may simply mean “a generation later”. This isn’t because the Hebraic people were wrong about numbers. They just used numbers, oftentimes, for different reasons and in different ways than we would.
There is so much more that could be said about this topic, but again, this is meant to be a fly-over. If you are more interested, though, by all means, google it. There is no shortage of Catholic apologists who go way more in-depth than I do about this. Just make sure you have a strong cup of coffee next to you and maybe some Ibuprofen.
*St. Augustine’s works are massively influential in the Catholic Church