Thursday, June 5, 2008

Strategies for atheists...and why they don't work for me

Justin Barrett, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, shows why belief in God or gods is more natural than atheism in most environments that humans have faced. While the features of our minds that make theism naturally compelling have evolved by natural selection motivated by survival and reproduction, to dismiss it on such grounds would also call into question many beliefs that atheists normally take for granted, such as belief in the existence of other minds, the passage of time, etc., which are likewise perceived by an evolved mental apparatus. Atheism, Barrett argues, thrives mostly among privileged elites who live in uncommon environments. (Cf. Bible passages that suggest God has a preference for working in and through the weak and powerless of the world in order to make his glory and power known.)

In a very intriguing chapter, Barrett explores the features of those uncommon environments where atheism thrives. He casts this in terms of "strategies" atheists could use to overcome the normally-occurring natural intuitive impediments to accepting their point of view. Living in an urban setting where nearly everything one encounters can be attributed to human agency, and surrounding yourself with other atheists who can reflectively generate alternate explanations of phenomena that would otherwise invite attribution to theistic agency, helps. Living in the wilderness hurts. And since the features of our minds which detect and characterize divine agency tend to be more active in urgent situations, it is important to reduce urgency in your life. In other words, I suppose the advice could be summarized like this: Be rich, and don't go sailing on the open sea (cf. Psalm 107).

Among the strategies for bolstering atheism Barrett mentions is "Reduce Secondhand Accounts That Might Become Evidence for God." One way to do this is simply to avoid contact with religious people, so you don't hear their stories. Another way is to "become immersed in a pluralistic society in which others' experiences hold little importance to you.... We live in a social environment in which there is a great plurality of daily demands and experiences, and consequently others' experiences are (intuitively) a less important database for evaluating beliefs."

This last "strategy" underscores one of the things that prevents me from throwing out theism or accepting naturalistic explanations as necessarily displacing God's role in events. I can read an evolutionary writer like David Sloan Wilson (see, e.g., Evolution For Everyone) and grant him that, given the phenomena he is viewing, he has given plausible and coherent naturalistic explanations that do not require the immediate action of a divine agent apart from natural causes. Yet there is nothing in his account--though the mystery of suffering and death built into the process does cause me to scratch my head--that rules out the possibility that the hand of divine providence underlies it all. In other words, if Wilson's account of our natural history is correct, God's role may be moved "deeper" (as an underlying providence sustaining all things and events) as opposed to the more surface role implied, for example, by a literalistic reading of Genesis 2 (a reading that, in any case, many find suspect on sheerly literary-critical grounds), but it is not necessarily eliminated.

But I, unlike David Sloan Wilson, did not grow up among the secular-minded intelligentsia of New England. I grew up in a religious community, and thus have had the opportunity to hear many stories of events that invite the attribution of divine agency.

I'll share a few such stories that come readily to mind. Stephen Beck, who was my church's pastor and whom I knew fairly well, once recounted how, when he was a UPS driver and his wife and he were struggling financially, they needed a certain amount of money to pay their bills. Nobody else had any way of knowing the exact amount, and yet someone felt "moved" to give them a sum of money, and it turned out to be the exact amount of their shortfall. Perhaps a story like this would have little effect on one like David Sloan Wilson, because he has not lived in the church community so as to gain a sense of my pastor's credibility and honesty, but I am in a fundamentally different position. I find it exceedingly hard to believe that he was flat-out lying. I also find it doubtful that his wife Susan would go along with it. Moreover, the VERY SAME THING happened to another fellow named Bob Vincent, who does not know Stephen or Susan, but who I have reason to consider a sane and honest reporter of what happened to him. The notion that Bob is making this up is simply out of the question for anyone who knows his character.

Another story was told to me over lunch by a Pentecostal pastor in my area. The pastor's mom was in a women's Bible study that a newcomer attended. In the middle of the study, the pastor's mom interrupted whatever they were talking about, and announced that she saw a vision of a neon sign over the head of the newcomer. The sign read, "Keep on truckin'." On hearing this, the newcomer burst into tears and explained that her husband had recently died, and that she and her family were wrestling with a decision of whether to sell her late husband's trucking business or continue to operate it. I don't know the pastor's mom, and I have seen Pentecostals be pretty gullible at times, so this story is not as compelling to me as the other one. Still, I find it easier to believe that the story is true than to believe that she or her son were flat-out lying. (If I had heard the story from, say, Benny Hinn, on the other hand, I wouldn't have given it a moment's thought.)

Another story was told to me by Sunder Krishnan, an engineer with Atomic Energy of Canada of Hindu background who became a Christian pastor and highly eloquent preacher. He had recently returned from a meeting with Iranian Christian exiles in the U.K., and related the story of how one of them had become a Christian. An Iranian man had a dream of a little boy who knocked on his door and informed him that he and his family were going to move in next door and were going to come over and tell him about God. Later, in real life, the boy and his family did move in and visited with him and told him about God. He became a Christian. I asked Sunder why he believed that story. He immediately shot back, "How else would he have become a Christian?" It's true, a Muslim in the middle of Iran at that time would have faced the threat of death, being disowned by relatives, loss of employment, etc. for converting to Christianity. If it is unusual for an Iranian Muslim in such circumstances to become a Christian, is it really surprising to find that something unusual and compelling had occurred in his life leading him to do so? I realized that my skepticism derived from a deep-seated secular Western prejudice against the supernatural, and not from anything intrinsically suspect about the story.

Perhaps I should also share another thing that happened to me personally. I had just closed down the business I was operating, due to financial issues. For a period of a week or two, when I wasn't engaged in the work of wrapping up affairs, I spent a lot of time in prayer and Bible reading. It was a time of sober reflection and repentance, after having drifted far from any kind of closeness to God. My accountant invited me to his church. I went the following Sunday, but couldn't find him, so my family and I did not sit next to him. We found seats roughly halfway back from the stage of this disco that the church was renting on Sunday mornings. This was quite a rock and roll kind of church, and I found myself uncharacteristically jumping up and down during the music, as were members of the worship team on stage, with my little boy Perry in my arms. After a time of singing the pastor began to preach. In the middle of his preaching, he interrupted what he was saying, looked right at me ("Me?" "Yes, you") and asked me to stand up. He said he had a word from the Lord concerning me. He told me, in about these words: "You are going through a time of great change in your life. You will experience a season of repentance and joy, so you may go and refresh the brothers." I asked my accountant later, and he swore that the pastor knew nothing of my personal situation. Further, as I recall, there were lights shining on the pastor that probably made it difficult for him to even see me all that clearly. Now one could theorize that I was a newcomer, and he had spotted me jumping up and down, and perhaps he was a particularly perceptive reader of persons so as to note that this was uncharacteristic behavior for me, and that his "prophecy" was MERELY a good guess based on these perceptions. But the theory that God was involved is at least as compelling to me, especially given other evidences of God's intervention in human affairs such as the above.

Of the above stories, the stories told by Stephen Beck and Bob Vincent are perhaps the most compelling and hardest to explain away in my mind. Stories like that, where it is plainly hard NOT to see God at work, give other stories where God's hand has been perceived at least prima facie plausibility. The numerous stories I have heard from credible people of God's timely provision to others of his servants ring true. In addition, such stories, coming as they do from credible and trustworthy people, lead me to at least not a priori chalk up to mere coincidence the numerous times when messages about the Bible have been spoken in my hearing, by persons who had no knowledge of my circumstances, in an uncannily timely way that spoke powerfully to me in those circumstances. Sometimes these incidents have happened in close succession, during seasons in which it seemed God was speaking to me at every turn.

Moreover, there is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which seems credible to me for the same sorts of reasons, i.e., the seeming credibility of the accounts, the fact that the persons telling the stories do not seem to have the profile or motivations of liars, etc.

Basically, then, I find it hard not to believe in God, even if our natural history can be coherently explained without reference to immediate creative interventions, because otherwise it is difficult to explain who or what is talking to me and intervening in my life and the lives of others I know.

At the same time, I am finding evolutionary theory compelling, and there are implications that would seem to require significant modifications of traditional beliefs about God and interpretations of biblical texts. For example, I am less inclined to consider a number of parts of the Old Testament as having the same kind of literal historical intent, as, say, the gospels, or of those parts of the New Testament epistles in which events in the authors' lives are recalled. And, frankly, there isn't a lot about the Old Testament texts themselves that seems incongruous with this new understanding. Stories like the making of the woman from the rib of the man do NOT obviously read like literal historical narratives--far from it--and the assertion that they are may simply reflect an assumption people are bringing to the text that the original readers may not have had. Certainly these texts are not the same genre as the gospels or epistles, which bear marks of being based on the eyewitness testimony of people who personally knew Jesus. As a rule of thumb, I find it entirely reasonable to expect that, when a biblical author is writing of the distant and mysterious past (e.g. Genesis 1-3) or the distant and mysterious future (like Revelation), evocative myth or metaphor, rather than literal historical narrative, is likely to be used. When, as in the New Testament, the narratives relate events in the authors' own lives (even mentioning the number of fish they caught on one occasion, see John 21:11), a more literal historical intent seems apparent. So I don't think I am adopting an awkward or forced interpretation simply for the sake of harmonizing with science.

I find it further telling that, of all the stories I have ever heard from credible people about divine intervention in people's lives, I do not recall any that was used to validate one interpretation of Scripture over another, or to settle a doctrinal controversy. I have never heard an extraordinary story that had bearing on the question of our biological history and the interpretation of Genesis, for example. It would seem that God himself has other interests. Every such story that I can recall has been about letting God's loved ones know that he is there and cares for them, even in the midst of tragedy and hardship, and about giving them encouragement and strength to fulfill the missions in life that God has called them to.