Godless?

godless-americaIt’s been a great weekend. I’ve watched 3 movies in the last 48 hours — An Unfinished Life, Stealth, and The Island. All three were totally different movies — drama, sci-fi, and high action (maybe the last two are both sci-fi action, but still). Different actors, different directors, different producers. But what I found interesting was something all three movies had in common… A blatant, and unnecessary-to-the-plot, swipe at God.

In “An Unfinished Life”, Robert Redford plays a hardened cowboy, who resents the life he feels was thrust on him by his daughter-in-law when a car accident killed his son but left her alive. After decades of pain-turned-bitterness, he lives alone with his friend and ranch-hand, until his daughter-in-law and the granddaughter he never knew he had come back into his life. At one point, out of nowhere, he makes the comment that he’d specifically want to shoot-on-site anyone that comes around “peddling their view of God. There’s no excuse for that [beep].”

Similar comments are made in both “Stealth” and “The Island”, painting the idea of God as foolish, and painting God Himself as mean and judgmental. Both movies being science-fiction, it seemed clear that the authors felt above this childish idea of the possiblity of God, and resent the way God is broadly defined in the culture.

And why shouldn’t they? More often than not, God is portrayed as some kind of judgmental, angry monster — just waiting to pounce on my mistakes. If that were God, I wouldn’t be too thrilled either. If God really were the way he’s painted in most Catholic schools and most movies, then I could understand their aversion, which is becoming the norm in culture today. More and more people are considering themselves too sophisticated, too smart, too busy, too whatever to need God anymore. Hollywood seems committed to relegating God to monster status, as evidenced by these few movies. And worst of all, most people who call themselves Christians are absolutely nothing like Jesus. Maybe that’s why the world finds them so unattractive … which is really said, since they found Jesus irresistible.

The truth is that there really is a God. A billion pieces of evidence point to that, but you have to have faith to see it. Many reject God, because they claim there’s no proof. There’s no proof the other way either. Nobody can put the origin of the universe or the theory of the existence of an eternal soul in a test tube. But logic, and a boatload of circumstantial evidence, support the theory that God exists — way more than refutes it.

The Bible passes more literary, historic, archaeological and internal-consistency tests for authenticity than any other book in history. These are standard tests used on all ancient manuscripts, both secular and religious — #2 is Homer’s “The Odysee”, btw. There are piles of extra-biblical texts that backup the Bible’s claims about Jesus. Archaeologists have dug up proof after proof of Biblical events (haven’t found one that doesn’t match up yet).

And then there’s the questions without answers that face the atheist… If we evolved from nothing by chance, then why is the world so beautiful? Why colorful sunsets when gray would have done just fine? Why do we love, when animal instinct would have worked for procreation? Why can’t we reproduce even the simplest parts of the human body in isolation and ideal lab conditions, when the claim is that they evolved by themselves with no help? Why do we assume there was a designer every time we lay our eyes on something complex, but our human bodies (more complex than anything else we know) are assumed to have required no designer? Why can the Bible (written by 60+ people over 1,600 years from cultures all over the world) not only have one unified message but speak so well to my 21st century heart? Have just two friends who grew up on the same street as you write a book about God, and see if it comes out even close to as consistent and coherent as Scripture. If all the universe came from an infinitely dense particle in a big bang, then where’d the particle come from and what caused it to explode? Why are identical twins so different, even days after birth, if there’s no soul?

I could go on and on. Movie after movie quips about the kid who asks the science questions that stump the priest in Catholic school. Ask some of your biology- or physics-loving friends some of these questions, and see where that goes. It just doesn’t make sense to remove God from the world. There must be something. But the truth is that most people don’t think about this stuff anymore. Too busy, too distracted, too lied-to by a culture with an agenda (no restrictions of any kind on what I call “freedom”), too absorbed into the TV, too lazy, too wealthy and comfortable … too self-sufficient to need God, etc. Most people who go to church do so like it’s a club that meets on Sunday morning — there’s no sense of coming into the presence of an all-powerful God who loves them and wants to personally relate to them each day.

And if anything is to blame for the culture wanting to relegate the church to passe, useless and make-believe, it’s the church — which has done this to itself. The more the church pulls back from really engaging God and living out real faith, the more the world will pull away from who they perceive God to be. Remember, if you claim the name of Christ, then you’re the only Jesus the world’s going to see.

So, the question becomes, what will happen to our nation as it sinks further and further into godlessness? It’s scary to think about, but it’s becoming very real.

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
This entry was posted in News, Politics and Culture, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Godless?

  1. Neva says:

    This is a really beautiful and impassioned essay, and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. As quite possibly the only biologist reading this, I feel the need to offer some answers on some of the science questions you brought up and then to give you my thoughts on them.

    If we evolved from nothing by chance, then why is the world so beautiful?
    Because our species evolved in this world and defined its sense of aesthetics in these conditions. Beauty is, to a degree, hard-wired in the brain, and the human definitions of beauty were based on our experience in this world. Ergo, we find this world beautiful.

    Why colorful sunsets when gray would have done just fine?
    Because our species evolved on this planet with this light spectrum, so we developed the ability to see the colors that our sun’s light can be split into. Had we evolved as a nocturnal species like dogs, it would be grey to us because we wouldn’t need to distinguish those colors.

    Why do we love, when animal instinct would have worked for procreation?
    In order to become a more advanced species, particularly one with a larger brain, a longer period of postnatal development (ie childhood) is required. This requires a longer period of maternal care in order for the child to survive. The development of love for a family and a community ensures that a larger group of people will be working together and creating a safe environment in which those children can be raised.

    Why do we assume there was a designer every time we lay our eyes on something complex, but our human bodies (more complex than anything else we know) are assumed to have required no designer?
    Most of the complex objects we observe, such as the camera you used as an example last time we discussed this, are not capable of reproducing themselves, so of course they must have been created by some other entity. Beings which are able of reproducing themselves are capable of doing so inexactly, ending up with offspring that are slightly different from the original parent. This provides variety in the population, some of which is beneficial and some of which is not. That which is beneficial will promote survival, and its offspring will be more like it. Continue this process thousands of times, keeping what works and losing what hinders, and you can end up with a very complex being.

    All of that being said, do I consider these things to be proof of Godlessness? Do I consider myself the scientific atheist archetype you’re addressing these questions to? No, I vehemently do not.
    I believe in the processes of evolution and the scientific laws that govern our universe. But that does not mean I cannot believe in a God who created those laws and set that process in motion. I am even open to the idea that God may have had some direction in which he wanted evolution to move, promoting the formation of a self-aware being capable of communing with him and understanding the wonderful world he allowed to form for us. Belief in science (and particularly evolution as that seems to be the hot topic of late) is not contradictory with a belief in God, even belief in a Christian view of God.
    The ideas I’ve advanced are part of the philosophy of Theistic Evolution, a way many scientists reconcile their Christian faith with their scientific studies. I just wanted to put these thoughts out there as I feel that so often the discussions end up placing science and religion in direct confrontation and ignoring those of us who don’t believe that they have to be.

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  2. brad says:

    THANK YOU NEVA!!! I think the realization that science and religion are not mutually exclusive is finally starting to take hold in the general population. Let the literal creationists and atheistic scientists scream all they want. Spiritually and scientifically this view will win every time.

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  3. Jeff Block says:

    Neva… Thanks for taking the time to post. Some interesting comments. I have a few questions / responses…

    1) Re: complex objects reproducing themselves. I understand the concept of natural selection. Seems like this only explains the *loss* of genetic information over time. Can you cite for me evidence that we have of how genetic information (how something became more complex) can be added over time by random chance? Maybe 3 examples (for which we have actual evidence?)

    2) Re: your argument for the “evolution of love”. I just find that hard to believe. What you’re basically saying is that love is a response to a biological need. As irrational and powerful as it is, I just don’t see it. Is there any analogy in the animal kingdom? Surely there must be other species for which long postnatal periods are part of their development?

    3) Unfortunately, I can’t really accept the theory of Theistic Evolution as applied to Christianity. If you just believe in a “higher power” or an undefined god of some kind, then this works fine (god set the laws of the world in motion, and eveolution is the mechanism, etc). However, this is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, because it invalidates the doctrine of salvation. In order for evolution to work, death is required. If you try to marry Christianity and evolution to try to explain the way humans evolved, then you end up with death existing before the fall of man. So, you either have to give up the idea of the fall, which destroys the need for salvation. Or, you have to accept that death pre-existed the fall, which also destroys the need for salvation. Either option breaks down the fundamental core of the Christian faith.

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  4. Neva says:

    1. If you really want the technical details, I want to be sure I’m getting them exactly right, and that’ll have to wait until I can dig my evolution texts out of the basement. I work in plant pathology, so the specifics of evolution aren’t exactly something I deal with in that kind of detail on a daily basis.
    But I’ll try to address where I think your basic confusion is coming from here. You believe that natural selection can only remove individuals from a population and thus increase the prominance of other individuals in the gene pool. And this is essentially correct in the sense you’re thinking of.
    However, what you’re overlooking is the source of the variation that natural selection acts on. In order for natural selection to happen, the members of a population must be different or there’s nothing to select for or against. So natural selection does not create complexity; it also doesn’t act randomly. It picks whatever is best suited for the current environment.
    What we actually need to be discussing here is mutation. That’s where the genetic variation comes from, and it’s possible to create information as well as lose it through different types of mutation. To try and illustrate the concept without getting too technical, I’ll start small. Let’s say an organism has a gene for an enzyme that lets it digest a particular food, let’s say grass. Now, that organism has offspring, but something unexpected happens when its DNA is copied to its offspring, and the offspring ends up with two copies of the gene. Not a big deal, it can still eat grass, so it’s happy. It might be able to even digest grass faster, which means less time laying around waiting to digest and faster availability of energy. Depending on how harsh the environment is, this might be enough of an advantage to spread this double copy of the enzyme through the population. And now that there are two copies, further mutation can start tinkering on the gene: before now, random changes that altered the gene’s function would prevent the organism from eating grass and it would starve, so there was no way to try something new. Now, though, if one copy gets changed, there’s a second one to keep letting the creature eat grass, so it’s fine. Most of the changes will probably break the gene so that it does nothing (still okay, second copy works just fine, eat away), but eventually one of them changes the enzyme so that it lets the creature digest leaves now. The organisms with this gene can eat both leaves and grass now, so they can go live somewhere without as much grass and not starve. Now they’re in a new environment and facing new challenges that weren’t part of their ancestor’s lives out on the prairie surrounded just by grass. So natural selection now starts selecting different traits that are appropriate to the new environment that didn’t matter so much out in the prairie. And in a few generations, this organism will probably look nothing like its ancestors because it lives somewhere different and needs to do completely different things.
    Okay, so that’s obviously a random hypothetical off the top of my head, but it should illustrate the idea of how random change has the potential to result in something new that never existed before.
    As I said, if you want actual, specific events, I’ll have to dig out some old books and notes since I’m not as up to date on that stuff in my daily life. I can’t do much calculus off the top of my head either anymore… darn being out of a liberal arts school and into a specialist program.

    2. I don’t know that I’m saying that love is only a response to a biological need. I’m saying that the concept of affection can arise through biological means for the good of the species. Once a species becomes self-aware to the extent of humanity, of course it changes; the concept of mind, as opposed to brain, changes a lot of things in ways we don’t understand yet. But we’re learning a lot more about them than we used to know. (I speak for the species here, and I imagine we’re all glad I’m not personally conducting psych research.)
    As for other species with long postnatal periods developing similar behaviors, I’d suggest looking at bonobos. As a little background, they’re very close relatives of chimps and, thus, also of us. They have some very interesting social interactions that hold their communities together, and analysis of them along with chimps is giving scientists some great insight into how societies develop and evolve.

    3. I don’t really require or expect you to accept theistic evolution as a belief system for yourself. I just wanted to explain it as an idea of how science and religion coexist for some people, including me.
    I’m really not certain what you mean by “the fall of man” in this context, so I’m having trouble responding to this point. Given the assumption that this philosophy is obviously not taking a literal reading of Genesis, what do you mean by “the fall”? And why does the existance of death negate the whole concept? I’m really not following this one at all, I’m afraid.
    As for salvation, the best I can give you without understanding what you’re saying is this… I believe that salvation enters the picture at the point where a species reaches self-awareness and the ability to conceive of abstract notions like morality. Once an individual can realize that they have done wrong and need salvation, then it is possible for that individual to seek and accept it.

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  5. brad says:

    Bonobos may be a good examble, what about penguins? Jeff, good point on the death and salvation argument. However, there are many books in the bible which most rational people cannot take literally. I consider Genesis to be one of these (revelations is another).
    I would personally be very happy if churches burned the old testament entirely and just tought from the new testament. I do not consider the old testament to be applicable, accurate or literal as a whole. Some stories appear accurate and have historic evidence to substantiate them.
    This also leads into the problem with which books were chosen to be canonized and which were not (both old and new testament).

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  6. Jeff Block says:

    Neva…

    Thanks for taking the time to share those examples. I wasn’t so much asking for a treatis on the concept (though your example was very well done and quite useful), as much as for examples of actual evidence. I wasn’t aware of much evidence to support the theory you described. Seems like there are lots of examples of the loss of genetic information over time, but not as much for the increase of it.

    But I understand what you’re saying… Either way it’s about mutation. I’m surprised to hear you say that mutation isn’t random. I thought that was a broadly-held tenant of evotion. In a vacuum, I have no problem believing that God would use tools like mutation to drive the creative process over long periods of time. But the creation has to be credited to God, regardless of the tools used. And God has to remain personal, so I reject the notion that God wound up the clock then went on to bigger and better things while it ticks (so to speak).

    My problem with evolution, more than anything else, is the leap that is often made from the evidence of natural selection to the claim that the universe came from nothing by random chance — that no creative mind was behind it. Way more often than not, the science of evolution (the observations) are immediately followed-up by the philosophical conclusion that there is no God, etc. This isn’t science, but people call it science, because they want the Carl Sagan view of the universe to be true — he said, “The universe is all there is or was or ever will be.” Of course, this (confusing science and philosophy) happens on both sides and on many topics, but it frustrates me because it’s really dishonest. We should not call philosophy science, or vice versa.

    Re: my argument about “the fall of man”… I do not require that you do or don’t take the book of Genesis literally. My personal approach to Scripture (or any non-fiction book) is to assume that the author said what he meant (that it’s literal) unless I have a reason not to. Kind of an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach. Either way, what I’m saying about the fall of man doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not you interpret Genesis literally. But the doctrine of the fall of man is essential to Christianity. In order for Jesus not to be some kind of lunatic, then you have to believe that he was the Savior, meaning that you need salvation from something, meaning that there was at some point a fall from grace. Man is being redeemed by Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection. If man had never rebelled, then the whole thing falls apart. So, even if you believe there was no garden and no apple, you have to believe man rebelled against God, or believing in Jesus isn’t very meaningful.

    This relates to the idea of evolution because the Bible states very clearly that death was not a part of God’s original design — that it only entered the scene after the fall, as a result of it. If natural selection were at work before this point in history, then death could not have been introduced by the fall, and everything crumbles apart. Your suggestion that the doctrine of salvation is only applied once man had evolved to the point of sentience is interesting — as in, I’ve never heard that argument before. But it doesn’t feel right. It has the same feeling as your explanation for love — like it’s a convenient way to get around a gap in a theory. That’s not very scientific, I realize; much more an emotional thing. And I concede its subjectivity. But it just doesn’t satisfy me.

    Brad…

    Are you sure you feel comfortable with the right to pick and choose which books of the Bible should be taken literally and which shouldn’t, based on what you want the book to say. That doesn’t seem kind of intellectually dishonest to you? Same with the idea of axing the Old Testament. Why do you feel we should just do away with it? I think you would have a really hard time convincing Jesus that the Old Testament should be tossed out, since He quoted from it incessently. It’s clear He thought it was both important and authentic. Christian theology comes from both, not just the New Testament.

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  7. Neva says:

    As I said, for specific examples, I’ll need to consult books to be sure I’m right because I don’t remember everything in the field off the top of my head. The things I do have on the top of my head for specific examples would be the development of the squid eye from a small patch of photosensitive cells and the development of feathers from reptilian scales.

    I did not state that mutation is not random. I stated that natural selection is not random. They are two different processes. Random mutations occur, and then natural selection acts upon the resulting organisms to retain the changes that were beneficial. Randomness produces the range of options, and then selection chooses to keep the ones that worked.

    As for God being too personal to use such a hands-off method, this is sort of what I was talking about in my initial post about God possibly having a goal of evolution producing beings that are self-aware and able to commune with him. Perhaps he did not care about the physical form of these beings but only wanted them to have that level of awareness and intellect.

    And I agree with you that the leap from “Evolution happens” to “God cannot exist” is frustrating and unjustified. That’s exactly the point I was trying to make by participating in this discussion. The existance of evolution does not preclude the existance of God. God is not measureable or directly observable, and thus the existance of God is not a question for science, as science can only deal with that which can be observed. No matter what anyone says, science cannot disprove the existance of God. Science is, thus, not the threat to religious faith that so many people make it to be.

    I’m afraid I’ll have to differ from you on taking things I read literally. Particularly things written a very long time ago. I very much enjoy reading Homer and other Greek mythology, but I don’t assume that everything they describe is real. I don’t even assume that everyone in that culture necessarily believed it was real. Tribal myths (used to imply cultural story, not falsehood) are the best explanation a culture can develop for observed events given their state of knowledge at the time. I view a lot of the Bible the same way. Do I believe that a single flood covered the entirety of the planet? No, but I believe there could have been one that covered much of the world known to the person telling the story of Noah, and to that person, the whole world they were aware of was underwater.
    How do I relate this to a need for salvation? As I said earlier, I don’t believe that there’s a need for salvation until a species is self-aware. I don’t think an animal can be considered to sin as it cannot know that what it’s doing is wrong. So once humanity evolves self-awareness and a mind capable of understanding morality (described as “eats from the tree” by a society with no understanding of evolutionary history that must represent that transition somehow), then humanity can understand that it is making choices to do or not do what is right and acceptable to God. (I see this as a point that each individual reaches rather than a single transition for the species as a whole, but I don’t know how significant that is for this discussion.) By choosing to give in to greed, temptation, etc, the individual knowingly does wrong and turns away from God, thus needing his forgiveness and salvation. If you prefer to think of a single event of rebellion, it can have occurred when the species became self-aware and chose to turn away from God to follow its own desires. There’s nothing in the theory of evolution to preclude that since evolution only discusses physical and behavioral changes, not philosophical ones.
    As for the involvement of death, perhaps is means a spiritual death, the result of sinning and turning away from God and not joining him in heaven. Perhaps God hoped that once a species had acheived sentience and understanding of him, it would not reject his love for its own desires and thus its souls would automatically join him for eternity. Because this did not happen, the possibility came into existance for souls to die and be separated from God’s love after the body died. Am I saying I necessarily believe this is how it happened? Not really, but it’s an explanation that can reconcile the two explanations.

    I really can’t help any with these explanations not feeling right to you; as you say, that’s subjective. If you like, I can send you info on some podcasts I’ve listened to from a science program that discuss things like the bonobo and the anthropological explanations for the development of altruism, compassion, etc. I’m sure their explanations will be far more eloquent than mine.

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  8. brad says:

    Jeff,
    I am not a biblical scholar, but most of what I have learned so far shows that Jesus contradicted the old testament as much as as he quoted it. He also selectively quoted from the old testament and as far as I know never stated that it should be used as the law of the land. I think when He made a new covenant the old covenant was over (I haven’t made any animal sacrifices in a long time). He also told many parables which were meant to be taken as lessons and not as actual events.
    As far as picking and choosing. Man did that when he canonized the bible. The books are written by many different authors over long periods of time. I see absolutely no intellectual dishonesty in questioning the validity of some of these books. That being said I am far more reluctant to dispute the gospels as they are first hand accounts corroborated by multiple authors (and they are the foundation of my faith).

    Neva,
    Your self awareness argument is very interesting. Eryn and I had a very long debate last night -before I read your post. (Eryn is pregnant again 🙂 and having trouble falling asleep at night.) We were discussing what we each thought the definition of a soul was. Then I asked the following question “When you sleep does your soul sleep?” Is a soul effected by physical processes? Why not? We ended with the conclusion that it makes sense that when you are born your soul is also immature, and until your soul reaches a level of accountability you are innocent (i.e. children automatically go to heaven). The question then became this. If you reach maturity and accountability and then have a traumatic braiun injury is your soul also effected?
    We both believe that in heaven your soul attains elightenment, so it wouldn’t matter what shape your soul was in when it entered.

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  9. Jeff Block says:

    Neva…

    I love that we’re in stark agreement about the fact that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Science does not “threaten” religion. What is threatening is all the people running around claiming that their philosophical views ARE science. And it sounds like we agree on that. Rock on!

    Brad…

    This is how Jesus responded to your question in Matthew 5 (part of the “Sermon on the Mount”)…

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

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  10. Neva says:

    Jeff,
    Yes, I am in complete agreement with you on that point, and I actually even took a class on the subject, taught by the head of my biology department at IWU. There are definitely questions science cannot address as science can only deal with what is directly observable in some fashion. The existance of God is definitely in the non-science category, and I don’t think any reputable scientist can claim otherwise.
    And I think science is threatened as much as religion is by people who are trying to claim that science can address topics of faith. That sort of misrepresentation only serves to broaden the divide between people of faith and people of science and makes people like me, who want to be both a Christian and a scientist, feel very lost and out of place; I do not like the feeling that I have to justify myself to both sides of the debate. And based on my experiences, I think there are a lot more scientists stuck in the middle like I am than most people outside of the field would realize. You just don’t hear about us because when the media organizes a debate on the topic, they pick the polar extremes to provide a more heated discussion.

    I wasn’t able to find the book I was looking for in my basement last night. (Time to clean the basement, I think.) But I would be happy to elaborate further on some concrete mechanisms and results of evolution if you’re interested in learning and understanding them. As I mentioned, squid eyes and feathers are probably the two examples I can most coherently discuss off the top of my head, so I’d be happy to explain those in more detail if you’d like.

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  11. Jeff Block says:

    We can save that for another time. Thanks for all the time you’ve put into this. I’ve very much enjoyed the discussion, and learned a lot from it too. I too look forward to a day when you don’t have to “justify [yourself] to both sides of the debate”. Rock on!

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  12. Neva says:

    I’ll definitely take you up on continuing the evolution discussion at a later date. Just let me know when and where, and I’ll be happy to talk about it. I’ve gotten the feeling in the past that you’re confused by evolution and having trouble accepting it, as opposed to simply rejecting it outright. If that is the case, I’ll do my best to help you understand the science behind it. The religious implications are obviously more complicated, and I don’t know that any of us have definitive answers on those.

    Thank you for setting up this as a forum to discuss issues like this. I didn’t realize until I started posting here how much I’ve missed having these discussions. You’ve definitely made me think about things from some different perspectives, and it’s always good to stretch the brain a bit. Now I just have to figure out how you’re doing that thing with an inset box showing which comment you’re specifically responding to…

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