I’ve got to hand it to the new wave of militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens and arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins. They are getting their message out, in best-selling books and in page-one articles in major newspapers like the Washington Post. Their message is simple: There is no God, and people who believe there is a God are simply being irrational. But is faith in God truly irrational?
The much-respected philosopher Alvin Plantinga is well-versed in the arguments employed by these atheists. He has debated his secular colleagues many times on the question: “Is it reasonable to presuppose that God exists?”
Their response, of course, is “no” because they believe only in physical phenomena and a material universe. Plantinga then asks them whether it is rational to believe that other people have minds. After all, there is scarcely more material evidence that other people have minds, as distinct from brains, than there is for God’s existence.
When the philosophers say “yes,” Plantinga argues that believing in God is just as rational as believing that other people have minds: Both conclusions reflect a faith of sorts.
There are other reasons why belief in God is rational, which I discuss in The Faith, my new book, to be published in January. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the universe is the product of intelligence, not chance.
What’s called the “anthropic principle” says intelligent life is possible only because of a precise combination of “seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics.” As one physicist put it, it is as if the “universe knew we were coming.” And the billions of human cells that make up our body, we know function only because of intelligent information.
Thus, belief in God is far from an irrational leap in the dark, much less a delusion, as Dawkins says. Even Dawkins rates himself only a “6” on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being certitude that God does not exist. “I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable,” Dawkins said, “and I live my life on the assumption that He is not there.” That’s a bad bet.*
The great philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that if there is no God, and you bet your life there is, you have lost nothing. But if there is a God, and you bet your life there is not, you have made an eternal mistake. Or put it this way: If Dr. Dawkins had been on the Titanic and was offered two lifeboats—one certain to sink and the other with a one-in-seven chance of staying afloat—he would not have chosen the one that was sure to sink. That would be irrational.
But there is another kind of evidence for the rationality of belief in God: that is, its impact on human lives and society.
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, people noticed that, compared to the squalor and general hopelessness of Rome, Christians lived a profoundly different, more hopeful life. This difference made conversion to Christianity a rational choice.
The same thing is true today: Studies of evangelization show that people come to Christianity because it delivers the results. It changes families, which atheistic worldviews cannot.
All of this and more makes belief in God rational and makes one wonder what’s behind disbelief. Philosopher Mortimer Adler, one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century, believed Christianity was true, but refused to accept it because it would interfere with his lifestyle. In time, he overcame that objection and became a Christian, which, given the evidence, was the only rational thing to do.
This commentary first aired on October 11, 2007, and is part four in a five-part series.
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