Tag Archives: Christianity

Andy Bannister and Michael Ruse discuss how atheists find meaning in life

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, and may the best horse win!

I’m summarizing the most recent episode of the Unbelievable show.

Details:

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse joins Justin as we spend a second week looking at Andy Bannister’s new book ‘The atheist who didn’t exist’.

Its amusingly titled chapters include ‘The Peculiar Case of the Postmodern Penguin (or: Why Life without God is Meaningless). Michael and Andy debate whether it’s a problem that atheists can’t have meaning with a ‘capital M’.

I think this discussion is a nice follow-up to a recent post, in which Neil Shenvi gave a scientist’s assessment of meaning and purpose in the naturalistic worldview, and explained by people should consider Christian theism instead.

Anyway, here is a summary of the discussion between Ruse and Bannister, and my comments below the summary.

The MP3 file is here.

Summary:

  • Ruse: ultimate questions are serious questions, and some religions are attempting to provide serious answers to those questions
  • Ruse: there is a psychological element to belief in God but it’s not a complete explanation, but it can apply to non-belief as well
  • Bannister: there are psychological reasons why people would prefer unbelief (quotes Thomas Nagel and Aldous Huxley)
  • Bannister: (to Ruse) what do you think would follow next if you got new information that caused you to believe in God?
  • Ruse: I’d feel scared, I’d think of all the reasons that God would dislike me, rather than any reasons why God would save me
  • Bannister: according to the Bible, God is not so much interested in mere belief, but in active trust in him
  • Ruse: without being smug, I just completed 50 years as a college professor of philosophy, and I have a sense of worth from that
  • Ruse: if God turns up, and says that 50 years of being a professor is not good enough, well, I don’t know God, I’m sorry, I did my best
  • Brierley: Andy, explain to us this story of how a penguin explained to you how he invented a subjective meaning in life for himself?
  • Brierley: (reads the story)
  • Bannister: when it comes to reading a book, the real meaning is the meaning the author intended the book to have
  • Bannister: readers can inject their own meaning into the book that has nothing to do with it, but the author gives the real meaning
  • Bannister: meaning in life is like reading a book – you can make up your own meaning, but the author’s meaning is the real meaning
  • Brierley: (to Ruse) on atheism, is there any objective meaning?
  • Ruse: “obviously, someone like myself cannot have meaning with a capital M in that sense”
  • Ruse: the real question is and atheist can find a sense of self-worth, “I find that I’m happier within myself, I can find meaning”
  • Bannister: what would you say to someone who drinks away the family inheritance and gets the same sense of happiness you have?
  • Bannister: what would you say to all the people who are unable to get “a sense of self-worth” from their career, because of where they are born, sickness, etc.
  • Ruse: I have nothing to offer them, some people are born into such awful situations that they are bound to be bad people
  • Ruse: these unfair accidents of birth, etc.,  fits with atheism better
  • Ruse: what we should do is change society so that more people can build a sense of self-worth through achievements
  • Ruse: that way, they can say to God “I used my talents” so they can create feelings of self-worth and happiness (apart from God)
  • Bannister: meaning in life cannot be answered without answering questions related to identity, value, which are rooted in the overall worldview
  • Bannister: on the Christian worldview, you have an infinite worth, your value isn’t determined by circumstances, earnings, friends, etc.
  • Bannister: your value comes from what Jesus was willing to pay to save you, namely, giving his own life for you
  • Bannister: when I travel to meet other Christians in other parts of the world, they have a happiness that should not be there if they are getting happiness from wealth, fame, achievements, etc.
  • Bannister: but when you come to the West, many people who have wealth, fame, achievement, etc. are unhappy
  • Ruse: well maybe who look after a flock of sheep every day may get a sense of self-worth from that, or from other jobs
  • Ruse: I do take Christianity very seriously, it is a grown-up proposal to answer grown-up questions – it works if it is true
  • Ruse: we don’t have to follow Nietzche’s statement that if there is no God, there is no meaning in life – we can find a middle way, we can achieve meaning in life by using our talents to achieve things
  • Bannister: I disagree with Michael, I don’t think that the meaning you invent for yourself is authentic meaning
  • Bannister: distracting yourself with amusing things and happiness is not an answer to the problem
  • Brierley: (to Ruse) are you saying that you have searched for ultimate meaning, and you are settling for subjective meaning?
  • Ruse: my subjective meaning is not second class to objective meaning, “I feel a real deep sense of achievement, of meaning, of self-worth, of having used my talents properly, and I don’t feel in any sense a sense of regret” (what matters to him is how he feels)
  • Bannister: notice how Michael keeps bringing in value judgments. e.g. – “use my talents well”, that implies that there is a right way and a wrong to use your talents, which assumes an objective scale of right and wrong, which makes no sense in atheism
  • Bannister: an atheist can sit in a sun room and enjoy the feelings of happiness generated by the light and heat of the Sun, without asking whether there is a Sun out there
  • Bannister: ultimately, at the end of the day, my concern is not whether something makes me happy or makes me feel fulfilled
  • Bannister: ultimately, at the end of the day, I think there is only one real reason to wrestle with these questions of meaning, and that is to find truth
  • Ruse: sometimes we reach a point where we cannot get to true answers to some questions, sometimes we look for truth, but then give up and confess “I cannot find it” and then move on from there

Is it possible to dispense with God’s advice on your decision-making and achieve something that affects a lot of people, or makes people like you, or makes you famous, etc., and then have that please God? “Look, God, I did something I liked that affected a lot of people, and made them feel happy as they were on their way to Hell because they rejected you”. Will rap musicians answer God by pointing to 50 years of leading people away from chastity with godless music? A lot of people went to see the “NWA” movie that celebrated musicians who have an anti-Christian view of women and violence. Can NWA present their “artistic work” to God and claim that God should be pleased with their successful efforts to get rich and famous? Having feelings of achievement doesn’t mean anything to God.

So what is the standard? How you imitate Jesus – self-control, self-denial and self-sacrifice to honor God – that is the standard. If I had to choose between giving up two hours of my life to summarize this discussion for my readers, and all the fame and fortune that people who make godless TV shows, movies and music have, I would choose to make this debate summary. My goal in life is not to have fun, thrills, travel and feel happy in this world. I have a Boss. Doing without fun, thrills, travel and happy feelings in order to put points on the board for my Boss is objectively meaningful. It’s may not seem like much compared to what James Bond does in million-dollar movies, but at least I am wearing the right uniform, and playing for the right team.

I was telling Dina recently, isn’t it remarkable how rarely in our culture that people actually talk about the big questions? If you look out at the culture, everything seems to be about feeling good, having fun, being liked by others. Not much about ultimate questions, and certainly not a truth-based assessment of the alternatives. .

What difference does God make to the questions of meaning and purpose?

Dr. Neil Shenvi has had a successful career in the field of theoretical chemistry, but in his spare time, he thinks about faith questions. One of the questions he’s thought about is the difference that God makes when we are asking questions of ultimate meaning and purpose in life. And he’s even done a lecture on it.

Here’s the lecture:

(37 minutes)

Topic:

Does life have a purpose? If naturalism is true, what is the purpose of life? If Christianity is true, what is the purpose of life?

Summary:

  • Dr. Shenvi’s brief testimony and background
  • There is no purpose to the universe and us on naturalism
  • The answer to every why-question on naturalism is chance and necessity (laws)
  • Nothing in the universe has intrinsic / objective value
  • There is no hope on naturalism because of the heat death of the universe: everything dies
  • Nothing that humans do, on naturalism, matters in the long run
  • Given sufficient time, the universe will not even know we were here
  • Famous atheists like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins agree on this

Purpose on naturalism:

  • Purpose response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up purposes
  • The monopoly in a prison illustration

Meaning on naturalism:

  • Meaning response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up meaning
  • The scrabble vs Shakespeare illustration

Value on naturalism:

  • Value response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up values
  • The subjective opinion vs objective truth illustration

Hope on naturalism:

  • Hope response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up hopes
  • The heat death of the universe ensures that all hopes fail on naturalism

If Christianity is true:

  • The universe and human beings have an objective purpose
  • There is a meaning to life that is objective
  • Human beings have intrinsic value, because God made them and values them
  • There is hope because there is an life after death that extends eternally

Conclusion:

  • This lecture does not argue that Christianity is true because it gives us goodies
  • People should become Christians because Christianity is true
  • Christianity is actually quite difficult because it requires self-denial and self-sacrifice
  • What God has done to help us overcome with our rebellion?

Note that these are not arguments for God’s existence, because he covered that in a previous lecture. And this lecture is not about arguing for Christianity, because he covered that in a previous lecture.

Dr. Shenvi’s web site is here.

By the way, if you want to hear a recent debate on this question, I summarized one in a recent post. The debate featured Andy Bannister vs Michael Ruse. Ruse tried to argue that you could get a feeling of self-worth from your accomplishments and that this feeling of having meaning was enough.

Neil Shenvi lectures on the relationship between science and religion

Another great 42-minute lecture by Dr. Neil Shenvi.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Outline slide: (Download the Powerpoint slides here)

Lecture:

Summary:

  • Science is often considered to be in opposition to religion, because it answers all the questions that religion asks
  • Thesis: 1) Science and religion are compatible, 2) Science provides us with good reasons to believe that God exists
  • Definition: what is science?
  • Definition: what is the scientific method?
  • Definition: what is religion?
  • Where is the conflict between science and religion, according to atheists?
  • Conflict 1: Definitional – faith is belief without evidence
  • But the Bible doesn’t define faith as “belief without evidence”
  • Conflict 2: Metaphysical – science presuppose naturalism (nature is all that exists)
  • First, naturalism is a philosophical assumption, not something that is scientifically tested or proved
  • Second, methodological naturalism in science doesn’t require us to believe in metaphysical naturalism
  • Conflict 3: Epistemological – science is the only way to know truth (scientism)
  • But scientism cannot itself be discovered by science – the statement is self-refuting
  • Conflict 4: Evolutionary – evolution explains the origin of life, so no need for God
  • Theists accept that organisms change over time, and that there is limited common descent
  • But the conflict is really over the mechanism that supposedly drives evolutionary change
  • There are philosophical and evidential reasons to doubt the effectiveness of mutation and selection
  • Evidence for God 1: the applicability of mathematics to the natural world, and our ability to study the natural world
  • Evidence for God 2: the origin of the universe
  • Evidence for God 3: the fine-tuning of the initial constants and quantities
  • Evidence for God 4: the implications of quantum mechanics
  • Evidence for God 5: the grounding of the philosophical foundations of the scientific enterprise
  • Hiddenness of God: why isn’t the evidence of God from science more abundant and more clear?
  • Science is not the only means for getting at truth
  • Science is not the best way to reach all the different kinds of people
  • There is an even deeper problem that causes people to not accept Christianity than lack of evidence
  • The deeper problem is the emotional problem: we want to reject God’s claim on our lives

He concludes with an explanation of the gospel, which is kinda cool, coming from an academic scientist.

I am a big admirer of Dr. Neil Shenvi. I wish we could clone him and have dozens, or even hundreds, like him (with different scientific specializations, of course!). I hope you guys are doing everything you can to lead and support our young people, and encouraging them to set their sights high and aim for the stars.

UPDATE: Dr. Shenvi has posted a text version of the lecture.

Related posts

Tim McGrew debates Peter Boghossian on the definition of faith

I have tried very hard to avoid writing about Peter Boghossian because I kept hoping that someone would speak to him and set him straight before he went too far.

Basically, when you listen to the debate below, you’ll find that Boghossian redefines the word faith so that it basically means “stupidity”, and then he tries to get people of faith to accept that they are stupid according to his new definition of faith. The new definition is not found in any dictionary, and it’s not used commonly, either.

Anyway, here are the details:

This Week on Unbelievable : Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – debate on ‘A Manual For Creating Atheists”

Peter Boghossian teaches philosophy and is the author of ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’. He believes that faith is a ‘false epistemology’ (way of knowing things) and even describes it as a ‘virus of the mind’. Tim McGrew is a Christian philosophy professor specialising in epistemology. He contests Boghossian’s definition of faith and debates the merits of his recent book. To cast your vote on the definition of faith visit www.facebook.com/unbelievablejb.

The MP3 file is here.

Topics: (I reserve the right to satirize Boghossian in this. Listen to the audio if you want his exact words)

  • PB: My book tries to avoid the “obfuscations” of reputable, credentialed Christian scholars and discusses faith at my intellectual level
  • PB: The goal of the book is to help people abandon the dictionary definition of the word “faith” and accept the definition I invented
  • TM: Defining the word “faith” in the wrong way is not the right way to start an authentic, respectful conversation
  • TM: Faith does not mean “pretending to know things you don’t know” – that is not a standard definition
  • TM: the only people who accept your definition of faith are you and the people who follow you online
  • TM: your whole book is predicated on on a wrong definition of faith
  • PB: that is my definition of faith based on my experience of talking to lots of people
  • TM: He says this is how billions of people define faith – but not in my experience, maybe satirists like Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain do
  • TM: Your definition of faith is not in the Oxford English Dictionary and that definition is based on common usage of the word faith
  • TM: The New Testament definition of faith “pistis” means trust
  • PB: There are 50-100 people who use the term that way, and only in academia
  • TM: How about “The Good Atheist” who interviewed you? He is not an academic or a theist, but he didn’t accept your definition
  • PB: You are “extraordinarily isolated” from the real definition of faith
  • TM: Faith is not belief without evidence, it is trust based on at least some evidence
  • PB: Christian leaders use the word according my definition, I won’t name any or quote any, though
  • JB: So you are basically saying that Christians are lying when they express their faith, since they know what they are saying isn’t true but they say it anyway
  • PB: What percentage of Christians use the word faith to mean “belief without evidence”
  • TM: Well below 1%. It may be the case that their evidence is not very good, but they do rest their beliefs on evidence
  • TM: Faith is trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reasons to believe is true in the face of difficulties
  • PB: That’s not what people mean by faith, they mean my definition
  • JB: What do you mean when you say that faith is a “virus of the mind”, and a “mental illness”? School programs to remove faith?
  • PB: Think about how atheists feel when they are told they will go Hell
  • PB: Christians are hurting people, so that means they have a mental disorder that needs to be cured in a systematic way
  • PB: Faith is an epistemic virus that hijacks the reasoning process

At that point I quit summarizing, because I didn’t think he was worth listening to any more.

He is clearly not aware of how even basic Christian apologetics books that are bestsellers cover evidences like the Big Bang, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, galactic habitability, stellar habitability, New Testament reliability, historical Jesus, philosophical arguments for theism, and so on. This is the bottom-shelf of Christian apologetics, widely read by rank-and-file Christians, but Boghossian seems to be completely unaware of it. He needs to get out more and talk to people outside of radical atheist circles. Maybe he needs to pick up a serious book like “Debating Christian Theism” and read it before he opens his mouth on topics he knows nothing about.

But that’s not all. As, I explained before, the concept of faith presented in the Bible agrees with what Dr. McGrew said – faith is trust based on evidence. That is the Biblical view.

And finally, this:

John 10:37-38: [NASB]

37 If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me;

38 but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”

The words of Jesus – he is saying: believe me because of the evidence I provide from miracles that you can see with your own eyes. Period. End of discussion.

So Boghossian’s view of faith is nowhere except in his own mind. Not in the apologetics literature. Not in the writings of any reputable Christian scholar. Not in the Bible. Not in the words of Jesus. It’s enough to make me think that this talk about “mental disorders” and “viruses of the mind” is just projection.

Vote in the poll

Please vote in this poll:

Thank goodness we have debates like this so that we can find out where Christians really come down on faith.

Bible study: the importance of truth in religion

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here’s an interesting passage of the Bible. What do you all think the practical value of this passage is?

1 In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep.

2 So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king,

3 he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.”

4 Then the astrologers answered the king, “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

5 The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble.

6 But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”

7 Once more they replied, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

8 Then the king answered, “I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided:

9 If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.”

10 The astrologers answered the king, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer.

11 What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.”

12 This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon.

13 So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death.

14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact.

15 He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel.

16 At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.

17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

19 During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven

20 and said:

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.

21 He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.

22 He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.

23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
you have made known to us the dream of the king.”

24Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.”

25 Arioch took Daniel to the king at once and said, “I have found a man among the exiles from Judah who can tell the king what his dream means.”

26 The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”

27 Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about,

28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you were lying in bed are these:

29 “As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen.

30 As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.

This passage is interesting to me because it shows the kind of attitude that God answers. The King in this passage was tired of hearing man-made stories from his servants – stories that were undoubtedly influenced by the servants desire to avoid the King’s wrath. The servants would only have told the King things that were vague and happy, so that they could never be proved wrong or found to be judgmental or offensive. But the King was tired of that. He wanted someone with authority to tell him the truth about the way the world was.

In the rest of the chapter, Daniel interprets the dream, and concludes by saying this: “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”. The King replies: “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”

I think it is is going to be difficult for Christians living today to be able to tell people their dreams like that. But what we can do is talk about God’s miracles as revealed by science and history. We can study astrophysics, biochemistry and history and we can explain what God did in creating and fine-tuning the universe for life, in sequencing amino acids into functioning proteins, in creating brand new body plans in the Cambrian explosion, in raising Jesus from the dead as a matter of historical record, and so on. We have to show how great God is to people who do not even think he exists, and without assuming that they believe in the Bible.

There are still people out there like the King who are looking for someone who can speak the truth to them. All it takes from us is a little studying, and we can be like Daniel, too.