Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Email from an atheist...

I haven't been blogging lately because I've been on holiday but I just thought I'd share something with you. A while ago, I was chatting with people on the Richard Dawkins forum and I had a fantastically honest and thoughtful email from an atheist guy on there about why he didn't believe in God or religion. His honesty challenged me and I thought I would share it with you and also my reply. I wonder what you would have written back...

Email from an Atheist...

My mother brought my siblings and me to a Presbyterian church off and on for a couple of years when I was very young. Other than that I was never raised to be religious. Throughout my childhood and teen years I believed in God but it was a rather vague belief and it didn't do anything to shape my life. I believed in God only in the sense that I would give a positive response if asked. I didn’t subscribe to any religion because I thought (and still think) organised religion is subversive and caused a lot of evil. I wanted to believe in God but on my own terms. I really closed my eyes to the idea that God may not exist. It was a silly thought to me. I told myself “Since everyone believes in some sort of god there must be one and they’re all praying to it in their own different traditions and through their own understanding". I latched on to this idea for a long time (but now know the logic is fallacious and is an appeal to popular belief).

After high school I joined the army and in 1998 I was deployed to Bosnia. There I saw enormous cemeteries, too many to count and in some cases too large to stand and view their borders, filled with the victims of the war. I saw the remains of what once were houses but since were marked with a spray painted x to signify that they were inhabited by Muslims and then riddled with bullets by Serbs. Other houses in the same neighborhoods were leveled to their foundations from rocket or mortar attacks. I saw old grey women in the streets forced to beg for money because they lost their legs to landmines hastily left in their backyards during the war. I saw other women standing in market places holding up pictures of their sons or husbands, men who died in the war, asking us soldiers if we knew where they could go for financial aid. A part of my job was to give mine awareness classes to elementary school to high school aged children in their classrooms. We had deactivated landmines to show the children so they know what to avoid. In one class, filled with twelve or thirteen year old children, one of my teammates held up a small antipersonnel mine and asked if any of them had ever seen one. One child held up his hand which was missing three fingers. He had to give no description of his account as his proof was his deformity. On multiple occasions my team and I were approached by Muslim extremists, members of the Mujahideen, who yelled at and spit in our faces and wished for our deaths, none deterred by the loaded M-16 rifles on our shoulders. It was in Bosnia that I asked myself if I was absolutely sure I believed in God.

I didn’t think there was any way to prove or disprove God’s existence so the question lingered but I didn’t feel compelled to try to answer it. When I got back from Bosnia I started noticing things that didn’t accord with my view on God and admitted to myself I was agnostic and remained so for many years. On my first date with my current girlfriend I told her I didn’t believe in God although I didn’t call myself an atheist. She asked me why I didn’t believe in God and I wanted to give her a good answer. I then started a search for answers. I asked myself what still made me believe in God. The argument from design struck me as valid but then I studied evolution and learned natural selection is a mindless process that has no goal in mind and we and every other species are products of it. The cosmological argument seemed valid but then I studied cosmology and found an explanation of how stars form from clouds of hydrogen and create the heavier elements that make up planets and everything on them…including every atom in my body! The more I learned the less reasons I had to believe. The only issue that remained is if God doesn’t exist there would have to be a reason why the universe does. Then I learned about the Hawking-Hartle Wave Function Theory that states the probability of our universe coming into existence uncaused is 100%. Dr. Stephen Hawking started work on this theory about 15 years ago and it's been verified by observational data.

That is how I became and why I still am an atheist. Can I ask why you believe in God?

My reply...

Thanks for your honesty and thanks too for asking me why I do believe in God. Here's a few reasons why...

1. I believe because he loves me.
Ok, ok, I know this is completely unscientific but it’s the biggest and most fundamental reason that I keep believing God is real. It’s like trying to prove that my mum and dad love me. There’s no way I could ever conclusively prove their love for me, least of all scientifically. However, this can’t take away the fact that I know they do love me. I know it because I know it. I’ve experienced it and I feel it. I’m reminded of it all the time but can I prove it? No. Is it real love? Yes! I believe God is real and loves me because I can’t deny that I’ve felt his love and seen his love at work in my life and the lives of others. Love in the midst of tragedy and suffering. Love that brings healing and hope. Scientific? Absolutely not. Real and true? I can’t deny it.

2. I believe because historical evidence is overwhelmingly compelling.
Most people who don’t believe the Bible haven’t taken much or any time to explore its claims. I’m thinking especially about the gospels and the account of the resurrection of Jesus. The historical reliability of the gospel accounts we have is incredible. We have eye-witness accounts written down for us to examine and test and they were written within living memory of Jesus. The evidence demands a verdict. We owe it to ourselves to thoroughly explore these claims before we dismiss them out-of-hand. Science is about building theories to explain the evidence we see around us. When a new piece of evidence comes up, we must test it to see if it’s false or if our theory needs to change in the light of this new piece of evidence. In this case, the scientific theory is: ‘Dead people don’t rise’ but the Bible says that Jesus came back to life. It would be unscientific for us to ignore the evidence completely and stick to our theory about death. Science surely should compel us to examine this evidence to see if our theory needs to change. The evidence is there but few people can be bothered to look at it. I could say more about specifics if you wanted. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming and it stands up to examination.

3. I believe because it’s logical.
I go back to your comment about ‘Hawking-Hartle Wave Function Theory’, which I must confess I have never heard of before. I'm assuming it must explain scientifically how we got something from nothing. I'm skeptical straight away because principally it sounds like science is trying to explain the origin of the universe and that issue is simply beyond the realms of science. How can science build theories to explain non-existence? This question has to be philosophical at least if not theological. The only logical explanation for getting something from nothing (especially something so incredibly complex and precise and amazing) is an amazing designer God. People ask, ‘But who created God?’ This is a common question but surely it also should apply to whatever it is that anyone says pre-existed our universe. What do you think came first, right at the beginning of our universe? Gasses? Space? Something else? Whatever it is, we could ask the same question: 'Who made it then?' Sooner or later, we have to acknowledge that something or someone was there at the beginning of our universe and that something or someone has always existed. There is no other logical explanation for how we got 'something' from 'nothing' and I don't think we should be attributing eternal characteristics to simple matter or gas or molecules or whatever. It is surely more likely and more logical that God, above and beyond our understanding is the only one who has this 'uncreated quality'. Something has to have had it and anything less than God seems far-fetched to me. The logical conclusion must be that something above and beyond ourselves is responsible for all that we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. That something or someone must be amazing and well worth getting to know, if they would give us the chance.

4. I believe because of conscience and morals.
Who decides right from wrong? Why do we even care? The fact is that from a very early age, humans instinctively react with an acute sense of injustice when they are wronged. A child will throw a tantrum when he or she feels that something is not fair. As we get older, we develop a more reasoned approach to ethics but still we don’t lose our sense of right and wrong. We may differ about specific issues like abortion or euthanasia or the death penalty but we all have ethics wired into our frame somehow. Why? Where does it come from? Why do we feel pangs of guilt when we get it wrong? I believe this points us all to God who gave us our conscience and our strong feelings for justice come from him. Everyone seems to have this sense of a moral obligation but to who? I believe it’s God.

5. I believe because he’s my only real hope. My believing doesn’t make him real but because I know he’s real, I’ve found that he’s the only place I can find what I (or anyone else) really needs: forgiveness, peace, hope, love. I can get bits of these from other people but ultimately the only person who can give me these completely is God himself. I don’t deserve it. I’m no more important than anyone else and I’ve done plenty that I’m ashamed of but that’s exactly why I need him so much. Without him I’m lost and without any hope of real forgiveness, peace and life to the full.

I hope this helps. I really appreciate your honesty, even though we currently have different views. I hope we can continue discussing and that we would be led into the absolute truth and reality of this issue. I think it could change our lives.

Thank you!