Category Archives: Religion

Why I’m not a materialist anymore

Introduction

A few years ago, I wrote an article called “Why I’m not Catholic anymore”, detailing the reasons I had left Catholic faith. I stopped practicing this religion about 5 years ago for several reasons which I detailed in 2011 in this article on my Neowin blog (which is now dead of course). Many discoveries since then, however, have changed my position. I can no longer stand on the fence, and naturalism, although a convenient position to hold in this day and age, is just too absurd on too many levels.

There’s not one single reason but several, all pointing towards the same direction, and together making a case where a leap of faith remains necessary yet is the obvious and natural thing to do. I’ll articulate my thoughts around 4 points.

1. The historical evidence for Jesus and the Resurrection

It’s incredible how powerful certain popular myths are. Even some of the most erudite people I’ve talked to, for instance, thought that the flat earth theory was a common belief in the Middle-Ages, which is plain wrong; people knew the earth was round since the Classical Age. Similarly, many people (even among Christians) assume that History has little to say about Jesus and that the whole thing could very well have been a myth.

Yet summary research on Wikipedia tells us the Christ Myth Theory has been effectively refuted, that Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion are firmly established historical events, that central figures of the New Testament such as Pontius Pilate and Paul of Tarsus have undeniably existed and match the description made of them in the New Testament, etc. Current-day NT scholarship includes leading figures such as E. P. Sanders, Craig S. Keener and N. T. Wright, for whom the historical Jesus is not very different from the ones revered by Christians. Reading Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels was a real eye-opener in that regard.

It seems clear that History puts us in front of a Galilean Jew who died on the cross, whose tomb was then found empty, which many people, believers and non-believers alike, reported to have seen alive in bodily form after his death, some of whom went on to announce his resurrection all around the pagan world, often at the cost of their lives. The resurrection of Jesus may escape historical certainty, but it certainly seems to be the best explanation of the data we have.

2. The arguments for the existence of God

Even as an agnostic, I’ve still always leaned towards theism more than atheism. The main arguments for God’s existence, i.e. why is there something rather than nothing, what is the origin of the universe, why does the physical world obey abstract laws and mathematics, how come these laws are precisely those that allow life to appear, have never been really refuted and are still defended by some of the world’s best philosophers today, such as William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. It also turns out that there aren’t any good arguments against the existence of God, except for the problem of Evil; but I feel the resurrection of Jesus is precisely a very good answer to the problem of Evil, i.e. Evil exists, but God does care about it and it won’t have the last word.

3. The existence of souls

While I was an agnostic, I’ve read quite a bit on neuroscience, including a book called “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size” by Tor Norretranders. We now know that consciousness, i.e. subjective experience, is the result of an incredible work of filtering and synthesis done by the brain on several levels which give the impression of one coherent, synchronous reality. Furthermore, conscious choices would be determined by the brain several hundred milliseconds in advance before we make any conscious “decision”. Advances like these seem to support the idea that we don’t need souls to explain anything, and that consciousness and free will are indeed, like naturalism implies, just useful illusions.

That said, it’s been increasingly clear to me that on a fundamental level, an objective description of a physical process can never express, much less explain, subjectivity itself. I have no problem admitting that the content of experience may be scientifically described; but it is an epistemological impossibility to jump from there to postulating that there’s a subject having these experiences, as you can only ever study it as an object. Indeed, the only reason we think other human beings have subjective experiences is because we know, individually, that we are subjects, and we assume other human beings must also be; but technically nothing prevents us from believing we are the only subject of experience and everyone else is just an advanced biochemical robot, which only acts as if seeing and feeling but doesn’t really have any subjective experience. Such a robot would be objectively indistinguishable, down to the neurological level, from what we conceive as a human being.

It follows that either we’re more than physical objects, or our own subjectivity is an illusion. But the latter is contrary to our immediate experience. Therefore we are souls, i.e. some immaterial principle, and naturalism is false.

4. The absurdity of naturalism

The fourth point is that a naturalistic worldview, i.e. one that poses that only particles exist, has profound and highly repugnant consequences such as: consciousness, free will and the mind are illusions (as detailed above); human life is without hope nor objective meaning; humanity as a whole is probably totally insignificant in regards to all of reality. We may affirm such things, but no one lives as if they were true. In a sense, naturalism condemns us to live in either ignorance or hypocrisy. I’m not saying atheists can’t have ethics or meaningful lives, only that they can’t ask the question of objective meaning. If a naturalistic ethics is possible, it must suffer the same ontological reduction as subjectivity and free will, i.e. it’s a useful illusion at best.

Watching a recent debate between Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig on the existence of God has been very fruitful, not only in revisiting the arguments for and against God’s existence, but also on what a naturalistic worldview entails. Rosenberg maintained (as he does in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality), among other patently absurd propositions, that we don’t really think about other things, since in a materialistic perspective there’s no such thing as an aboutness to things, there are just things, i.e. material objects.

Atheists should spend less time talking about Pastafarianism and read books like this that explain what their belief (or non-belief as some like to put it) entails; I’m not sure many would follow Rosenberg all the way down that rabbit hole.

Conclusion

I do not claim to have solved every question in my mind; Christianity is in itself full of questions and not simply a set of ready-made answers as some seem to think. I don’t know what life after death will be like, I don’t even really know what Christ meant when he said “take your cross every day and follow me”. All I know now, as a recent convert, is that I should take this stuff seriously and try to figure out what to do about it.

No, we don’t actually think all atheists go to hell

Luke Muehlhauser of commonsenseatheism.org asks (well, asked, in 2011): “Do Christians REALLY Believe?” To put things in logical form, his point basically goes like this:

  • Christians believe that atheists go to hell
  • Hell is eternal torture
  • Any charitable spirit thinking someone might endure eternal torture will do what he can to prevent it
  • Christians don’t seem overly concerned with preventing atheists from going to hell
  • Therefore Christians don’t really believe atheists go to hell

Penn Jilette makes a similar point:


As someone who’s been Christian at least for most of his life, here’s what I would answer.

First, Luke is basically correct in his conclusion! Christians don’t really think atheists go to hell. Christian doctrine on salvation is based on our gospel sources for what Jesus said 2000 years ago. In particular Mark 16:15-16 chronicles that after his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples:

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

What’s remarkable here is that Jesus said nothing regarding those to whom the gospel has not been proclaimed. And regardless how some sarcastic criticism pictures theology, theologians don’t just make stuff up. So the reality is that we don’t really know what happens to people who have not been preached the gospel; we can only hope (more on that later) that God doesn’t just send them all to hell.

The silence of Jesus on those unable to receive baptism has caused many centuries of debate on the existence of limbo, for example. The current theological consensus, recently emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI, asserts that limbo doesn’t exist and we should hope that unbaptized dead babies go to heaven instead. Not everything is dogma in theology; as in any other field of investigation there are degrees of certitude to various beliefs.

Back to the topic at hand, we don’t really know what happens to people who have not been preached the gospel, but we believe God is fair and merciful, so we reasonably hope that these people are not sent to eternal torture. What does that make of atheists then? What of atheists who vaguely heard of the gospel but didn’t really gave a damn? What of atheists who carefully studied the question and still think it’s all noodly appendages and tooth fairies? Well, in short, some of them will certainly go to hell but most of them probably don’t.

First, most atheists only have very vague and skewed notions of what the gospel actually proclaims, which shows nobody properly preached it to them. So they would fall in the category of people who have not been preached the gospel and of which their post-death future is unknown yet unlikely to be hell.

Indeed, most arguments I hear against Christianity are based on utter misconceptions of what it teaches, for instance all the arguments based on Old Testament Mosaic Law (“Do you guys really stone homosexuals?”), or on our ultimate destiny (“If our ultimate destiny is to live as disembodied souls why should we care about our body?”) and so forth. Anyone using such arguments clearly has terribly inaccurate conceptions of what the message of Christ is and therefore cannot be considered to have been preached the gospel.

The only category of people on which Jesus’ condemnation falls seems really to be those who have understood the message of the gospel yet refused to believe because, deep down they don’t want to accept that someone out there cares about them, for whatever personal reasons (the emotional impact of the argument from evil is the most common cause of apostasy after all), or that they don’t want to assume the changes to their lives that following Christ would entail.

Even though they might put up a facade of rationality for their unbelief, the crux of the issue is really reject of God for what he is and what faith would entail, and according to everything Jesus said, with such motives someone just doesn’t enter the Kingdom of God.

So that’s for what Christians believe.

Now many self-proclaimed “Christians” don’t actually believe in Jesus at all! In Canada, a large percentage of people who answer the question “are you Catholic” positively, answer the question “do you believe in God” negatively. In my own experience, most self-proclaimed Catholics don’t even believe in hell, or if they do, they don’t think God sends anyone there. These people should read the gospel a bit more, or stop proclaiming conformity to a doctrine they disagree with.

To summarize:

  1. A lot of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in God or Hell so their attitudes on the matter is irrelevant
  2. Real Christians (those who actually believe in Jesus) don’t think atheists go to hell for the most part, although some atheists might.

Now I think the fact that even some atheists might go to hell for their unbelief should be well enough motivation to proselytize and I think it’s regrettable that even convinced Christians are so timid. What do you want, we’re just humans after all; we suck at standing up for our beliefs just like everyone else. God help us.