the Participants] [Opening
Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening
Statement by John Rankin][Dialog]
from the Audience] [Closing
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]
Does It Make Sense to Be an Atheist?
Opening Statement by John Rankin
Thank you Ed. You've raised a lot of marvelous, provocative questions and I look forward to our interaction to examine those, but it would not be fair for me to use my opening comments to be different than what I had planned.
So the question is, does it make any sense to be an atheist and I will say no and I will make myself accountable to the best most accountable, logical, intellectually rigorous sense that we can discover among ourselves.
Let me begin first by a little bit of my own background. As Don mentioned earlier as part of my biographical sketch, I was raised a skeptic in West Hartford in the Unitarian Universalist Church. And though my father is a theist, my Sunday school teachers were agnostics or atheists and that was where I got my earliest influences as a child. And I was taught to be skeptical of the Old and New Testaments and yet as a 7 or 8-year-old, I thought to myself without knowing Shakespeare that they protested too much. And I became a skeptic, this is to make a long story short, of the skepticisms that I was taught and wound up being a believer.
I believe that today I'm a more rigorous skeptic now than I was then. But what does it mean to be a skeptic? A skeptic means to be one who is always testing truth claims in search for the truth and that's the bottom-line issue. Are we searching for the truth or are we searching to avoid the truth? Or somewhere in a spectrum in between.
So I love being a skeptic in the positive sense. I love the embrace of hard questions. Now I can remember as about a 7 or 8-year-old looking out my window in West Hartford, looking at all the pine trees in the back yard and one time I figured out that there were a lot of needles on those pine trees. I started trying to count them and realized very quickly that was a large task.
Then I also observed how many blades of grass there were, considered the number of leaves that were out there. Then I thought there were a lot of stars in the sky and I even thought there were a lot of grains of sand on the beach and I had not yet read about Abraham. So I was impressed as a little kid that there was a lot of stuff out there. But the other thing that impressed me was that they all had a mathematical distance between themselves. And that every particle in the universe had exact distance from every other particle even if they're moving the whole time.
And all of a sudden I realized this was far too much for me to grasp. So I came to the conclusion there must be an accounting somewhere, a tally of all these mathematical relationships. So that was a sense of wonder at the complexity and infinitude as it were from the human perspective of the universe as I saw it as a 7 or 8-year-old.
This leads me to the topic of space, time and number. Ecclesiastes, a book probably written by Solomon, is really a testing to see if he can live without God and what happens if he can do it. After the Queen of Sheba left him, he pursued pleasure in a very self-aggrandizing fashion as we know from the narrative in Kings and Chronicles. In the midst of this, he says in Ecclesiastes 3, he says, speaking of God, "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."
Now I think that any honest observer of the universe would have to be impressed by its size and by our modesty in comparison. And so as a child I was really impressed, but I think we're all impressed with the size of the universe and our humility and comparison to it. And I certainly was as a young child.
Space, for example. Has anyone as a young child remembered trying to figure out where space ends? We have a few people who agree with that. Well, I tried to figure this out around 1959 or 1960 and I was 6 or 7-years old. And the best way to do it was take a trip with Flash Gordon - and that dates a few of us. I was really impressed once watching that as a 7-year-old. He once had a Captain Rankin on his ship and there was my name in lights. Little did I know that two decades later I would marry a Gordon who's more Scottish than me and we'll leave it there.
But anyhow, I imagined taking a spaceship flight with Flash Gordon to the end of the universe and we arrived. And do you know what we found when we got there? A big brick wall. And on it, it said fortunately in English for my sake - "end of universe." Now was I satisfied? What's on the other side? You see, space is something in which we exist and yet none of us can wrap ourselves around it, we can't fathom it.
Think also about the matter of time. I can remember my second oldest son, Stuart, who'll be back from his Spring term shortly, as a 6-year-old one time said to me, "You know, Dad, when we die and go to heaven, we're with Jesus and live forever" And I said, "Yes, Stuart." He said, "You know, Dad, forever's an awfully long time - what are we going to do?" His concerns as a 6-year-old was were there going to be enough toys, would he get bored.
My answer to him now -- and this is a little bit of a representative answer -- is that eternal life is the eternity to explore the infinity of God's library. And Stuart loves that very much and so do I. It brings to bear the question where does time end? What happens a second after time is over? And yet we live within the limits of time.
And then, number. Now my daughter who's 11 now, when she was about 4-years old, she was learning to count big numbers. For her a big number when you go from 9 to 10, 99 to 100, but then when she asked and I explained how you went from 999 to a 1,000 her eyes just grew so large. And what I discerned as her father was she was impressed with her power to make bigger numbers. And I came home from the office one day and there she was in her room, and she was counting. My daughter, if you get to know her, when she concentrates on something, her whole intensity of personality focuses thereupon.
And she was counting with her fingers and I forget the exact numbers, but it was something like 1,267, 1,268, 1,269 and then she noticed my presence. Now I don't know where she started. But I know that she was working and she was understanding bigger numbers. So she saw Daddy come in and what was her question? After all what does Daddy know to a 4-year-old daughter? Everything.
So let's just cut to chase. "Daddy, what's the biggest number in the world? So my answer was "Well, sweetheart, the biggest number in the world is infinity, but that's a philosophical construct." I really didn't say the second part of that. I tried to explain to a 4-year-old who thinks in concrete terms, not abstract thoughts, that we don't know the biggest number - infinity means without limit.
Well, since she isn't thinking in abstract thoughts, what did her Daddy just tell her? Infinity is the biggest number in the world. So what was her next question? Daddy what's infinity plus one? Because she was working on that scenario. I said, "Well, sweetheart, that's a very good question. Infinity plus one is a different but the same philosophical construct." Infinity, I didn't really say the philosophical construct. But the point is that if we're humble, we realize we live within the limits, the measurements of space, time and number and yet none of us can transcend it. And so logically, sensibly, I think we should all ask what precedes or is greater than time, space, and number.
When I went off to prep school in November 1967 - early November a day or two after Halloween, I remember stepping out of chapel early one evening and I was going to a chapel where I said I don't believe this stuff so I won't participate. So I didn't participate. But I stepped out of chapel early one evening and the Milky Way was like a paint stroke against a black canvas as clear as could be in the western Housatonic highlands of Connecticut where I was in boarding school. And as I looked at the beauty and no moon was out and so the stars were very bright, I said to myself the following, "You know, if there's a God then he must have made all of this for a purpose. And that purpose must include my very existence, it must include the reason I'm asking this question. And if this is true, I need to get plugged into him."
So at the intellectual level beginning with awe and wonder but embracing the most rigorous inquiry of our existence in our habitat, I saw eternity from my humble perspective and said there must be a purpose, there must be a reason for this. What is it? In conjunction with my prior thoughts about time, space and number.
And so I posed that question and quite unexpectedly with no tutorials from any biblical teaching or any mentorship, God showed up supernaturally a couple of nights later. I won't go into the details right now. But in fact one time when I was at a secular humanist conference that Ed's boss, Dr. Paul Kurtz, was heading up in Boston 12 years ago, I met some atheists. And this one elderly atheist said, "Well, how is it that you could go from being an agnostic to being a Christian, it's supposed to go the other way around."
Now those of you who know me know that I love a good discussion and I could have talked a long time. But I was very quick at that point in my answer and said well, I asked an intellectual question of an awesome universe and God showed up, what was I supposed to do? Well, people can challenge experiences and all experiences need to be submitted to truth claims. But the point here looking at the matter of sense is what does it mean to be sensible? What does it mean to be rational? What does it mean to be logical? What does it mean to use our minds in a consistent and rigorous fashion?
Well, this leads me to an observation for which I know of no exception. And that is everything understood in the universe that is understandable so far in human inquiry is based on cause and effect, and I know of no exception to that. And so if we take, for example, the theory of the hot big bank where apparently the whole universe was less than size of a basketball, a grapefruit, or golf ball depending upon either your diet or your sports attitude - but something pretty small. And it exploded out where it has expanded with all this marvelous order that produces us, and so forth.
Well, I'm impressed by that theory but that may not be the right theory. But let's just take that theory because I think that most secular humanist agnostics/atheists do embrace that theory. And so taking that theory on face value, we ask ourselves a question, "What preceded the hot big bang? If we live in a universe that is circumscribed with the measurements of time, space and number -- how can they exist unless something greater than time, space and number put them into being to begin with? What other sensible answer can we understand?
Now what's remarkable to me at this point is, if we look at every pagan deity in history-- take the Babylonian Genesis, the Greek or the Roman mythologies, or the Mayan Popol Vuh, or the Hindu concepts, the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Whatever pagan deity we see written in history, every one of them without exception (back to origin texts; it gets complicated when there's admixtures later on in history), but back to the original understandings of antique cultures. Every pagan deity is understood to be limited by time, space and number -- less than the universe.
And what's powerful about the biblical account is Yahweh Elohim and the Hebrew are two words that to sum it up quickly means, he who's bigger than space, time and number, and he who said in the beginning he created the heavens and the earth. And so you have this understanding of a power greater than time, space and number, which leads me to another interesting element.
If we are persons and if personhood is part of the universe and if the universe is a result of cause and effect, it means the cause of the universe, since the universe includes personality, has to be a greater personality than we are. And here again, Genesis is unique in that God, Yahweh Elohim, is a person and his personality is revealed all the way through scripture. And so if we look at the matter of our limitations, the nature of the universe, what precedes, what is greater, we come up to in my estimation the fact that it's only sensible to conclude there must be a Creator. And without the time to go into it right now, if we line up the biblical understanding vs. the pagan understandings, the pagan understandings are rooted in being less than time, space and number Yahweh Elohim starts greater than.
Now the real issue far deeper than this, and this again is in my original notes, and Ed made a very good case about this topic which I'm sure we'll talk about. The real issue to me is a definition of good and evil, and Ed brought up the questions of evil. And so if I can make the argument logically about the authorship of the universe by God, cause and effect in matters like that, we then have to ask ourselves what is the nature of good and evil and is this God good? And the biblical testimony is that God is good, his power is unlimited and how do those things come together?
And let me make six brief ethical observations about the nature of God and the nature of the Bible. And ethical components or ethics is how we treat each other. And the greatest ethic of all in the Bible is to love the Lord our God heart, soul, mind and strength, our neighbor as ourselves.
The first ethic is the power to give. Yahweh Elohim who's without limitation gives and gives with no strings attached. That's how we should treat each other.
The second ethical component is the power to live in the light. Light's a marvelous theme to pursue all the way through scripture. Has anyone ever figured out what the speed of darkness is? Well if light's present, it's the speed of light being evacuated by light. The very nature of light, and God said let there be light, Jesus said, "I'm the light." He said, "You're to be the light." The whole idea of light is to live openly, above board, no ulterior agendas, nothing hidden whatsoever. And this is the ethics of living in the light.
The third one is the power of informed choice. I could spend a whole lot of time here. This is one of my favorite topics. But what Genesis starts with is an invitation of a feast of an unlimited menu of good choices in the moral realm and also in terms of the foods we eat, and how we make choices in our lives. An unlimited menu of good choices and one forbidden choice, which if we eat of it and we're dead, we have no more freedom to make good choices.
And if we're going to ask ourselves is freedom possible, if we're going to look at this issue of freedom vs. slavery and we compare all pagan religious origin texts, they assume that gods and goddesses are slaves to a hostile universe and we are their slaves. And even atheism and secular humanism traces back to philosophical roots in ancient Greek for the most part and they never transcend, never get beyond those religious assumptions even if they put aside some of the religious nature.
The fourth ethical component is the power to love hard questions. I submit to you that there is no other religious origin text in history apart from the Bible that has such a phenomenal, wonderful open-ended embrace of tough questions.
Fifthly, is the power to love enemies and that's quintessentially who Jesus is to all people.
And sixth and finally, is the power to forgive. The conclusion after the Lord's prayer if we don't forgive one another, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. There's an equitable nature involved all the way through.
So therefore, the ethical nature of the Bible as it starts off with the power to give, it ends up with the power to forgive. But what happens in between. This comes back to the doctrinal assumptions of the Bible: creation, sin and redemption. God gives us goodness, but goodness being the nature of a gift, a gift cannot be forced, God doesn't force it. We choose what is evil. So he says [in Hebrew], akol tokal, "in feasting you shall feast." It's a smorgasbord definition of freedom. But if you eat the forbidden fruit, moth tamouth, "in dying you will die." An active participle, you will reap what you sow. And those who follow your bad choices will inherit those bad choices as well. But yet I will only judge people for the choices they make. And the reason that this is equitable and true is because there's an eternal life we were given to begin with, and though we gave it up by eating the forbidden fruit, it is restored to us again.
Now final comment, so I do not believe it makes any sense to be an atheist. But the marvelous beauty about a biblical world view is regardless of someone being an atheist, a pagan, a skeptic or whatever it happens to be, every person is made in God's image equally. And so for someone who is biblical, they will love their neighbor as themselves no matter what their neighbor believes. Thank you.
the Participants] [Opening
Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening
Statement by John Rankin][Dialog]
from the Audience] [Closing
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]