by Vince Vitale
If you were to lock a group of atheist philosophers who do not specialize in religion in a room with theist philosophers who do (don’t actually do this, but if you did) and listen to the ensuing debates, you “would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.” 1
Those are not my words but the words of an atheist, and not just any atheist but an atheist who is a professional philosopher with 12 books and over 140 peer-reviewed articles to his name.
Despite his atheism, Quentin Smith draws the theism-friendly conclusion that “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.”2
God is alive. And not only in philosophy, but in sociology as well. Fifty years ago sociology was convinced that God was on the way out. The scholars had bought into secularization theory; you know the idea—the more modern and technological the world becomes, the more secular it becomes. Peter Berger was one of the leading proponents of this theory. Today he has abandoned it.
At an academic conference in Miami in 2011, Berger said that he and almost everyone in the field changed their minds simply because that is what the evidence demanded. He said that if you look at the contemporary world,
The real situation is that most of the world is as religious as it ever was. You have enormous explosions of religion in the world…In fact, you can say every major religious tradition has been going through a period of resurgence in the last 30, 40 years or so…anything but secularization. 3
Probably the most influential British philosopher of religion of the last half century is longtime Oxford professor Richard Swinburne. In 2003 Swinburne published a book entitled The Resurrection of God Incarnate, and in that book he concludes that, on the available evidence today, it is 97% probable that Jesus truly—miraculously—rose from the dead, proving that he is the God he claimed to be.
Do all philosophers agree with Swinburne? Of course not. And even Swinburne recognizes that we shouldn’t take the exact percentage too seriously. He likes to work with probability theory so he plugs in numbers at each point in the argument; they are meant to provide only a rough estimate.
Still though, the fact that someone of Swinburne’s intellectual credibility can make that claim in print, have it published by Oxford University Press, and then ably defend it at top academic conferences all around the world speaks to the fact that the intellectual case for the Christian faith is strong.
A number of popular authors have suggested otherwise in recent years, but these New Atheists generally are not engaged with current philosophical scholarship. In fact, much of the New Atheism at the popular level can be traced directly back to old scholarship at the academic level.
Richard Dawkins denies the existence of a God who can ground good and evil, right and wrong. But criticism without alternative is empty. What is his alternative?: a world in which his disturbing response to being asked whether the wrongness of rape is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six is, “You could say that, yeah.”4
Quentin Smith denies the existence of a God who can raise the dead. What is his alternative?:
The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing… We should…acknowledge our foundation in nothingness and feel awe at the marvellous fact that we have a chance to participate briefly in this incredible sunburst that interrupts without reason the reign of non-being.5
Is this any less extraordinary than a resurrection from the dead? On second thought, is this not itself a resurrection from the dead? This Easter, as we reflect on the profundity of life, the question, perhaps, is not whether we believe in resurrection, but rather which resurrection we believe in.
If we think it is our minds that keep us from God, we may not be dealing with the arguments at the highest level. My own story is one of reasoning that if God really made me, and if he made me with my mind, then he would ensure that a sincere intellectual search would point in his direction. And, to my surprise, that is exactly what I found. Along the way I also found that the Bible itself praises people not for blind faith but for examining the evidence every day to determine if what they were being told was true. 6
So, why is there something rather than nothing? Why is that something so finely-tuned for rational life that we can see, and hear, and think, all while sat on a rock that is rotating at a thousand miles an hour, flying around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, as part of a galaxy hurling through the universe at over a million miles an hour? We live in a miraculous world! Atheist, theist, or agnostic, there is no getting around that fact.
Dr Vince Vitale is Director of the Zacharias Institute. He was educated at Princeton University and the University of Oxford, and he taught philosophy of religion and served as a faculty member at both of these universities. During his undergraduate studies in philosophy at Princeton he took an unexpected journey from sceptic to evangelist. He then completed masters and PhD studies at Oxford, receiving a Daniel M. Sachs Graduating Scholarship and a Clarendon Scholarship. An earlier version of this article was published in “A Slice of Infinity” here:
- Smith, Quentin. “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism.” Philo. 4.2 (2001): p. 197.
- Berger, Peter. “Six Decades as a Worldwide Religion Watcher: Observations & Lessons Learned.” Ethics & Public Policy Center. n.p., n.d., accessed online on July 22, 2014 at http://eppc.org/publications/berger/.
- Dawkins, Richard. Interview by Justin Brierley. “The John Lennox—Richard Dawkins Debate.” Bethinking.org, 2008. Web. 25 April 2014. <http://www.bethinking.org/atheism/the-john-lennox-richard-dawkins-debate>.
- Quentin Smith, “The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe,” in William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. 1993. p. 135. Emphasis added.
- Some of the ideas expressed in this article are also recorded in the following video: http://bit.ly/WC1rrg