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When atheism seems easy

Published: 30 December 2017 (GMT+10)

J.R. from the United States writes:

Hello there! First, I’d like to thank the U.S. office for their response to an earlier question of mine. It made sense and helped me understand. Even though I’m a Christian I still struggle with emotional doubts and resisting the temptation to just believe materialistic notions because they don’t require intellectual strength, just “feeling faith.”

Today I have a question that has been bugging me for some time, concerning the moral argument for the existence of God. I was reading the article Why believe in objective morals? which is basically the sum of my question. If we follow evolutionary naturalism to its ultimate end concerning morality, we end up with morality simply being a useful illusion. I was looking for reasons for objective morality outside of feeling or personal interest. For instance, if someone is averse to things being done to them that harm them or a loved one, couldn’t the materialist just say that such aversion is a selfish desire?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Facing the darkness

I know what it’s like to find the darkness easy to embrace, even as a Christian (see Darwin, Spurgeon and the ‘black dog’). In times past, I went to some pretty dark places because of some difficult circumstances in my life (some self-caused, others not). It got to the point where I suffered some suicidal thoughts, and would often depressively contemplate giving up the faith just because it seemed more noble to go to Hell knowing the truth than it did to embrace the faith and look forward to eternal life. Thankfully, with help from the people around me, and a ton of God’s grace, I was able to slowly claw my way out of that hole. But it took time and some moral effort on my part.

But you know what was the one thing that was pretty much guaranteed to make things worse for my mental state, during that time? Philosophy. I felt like I could assess these things with clarity and rigour, but I was wrong. Why? The argument never stops. And when the black hole was appealing, my prior probability judgments were skewed big time toward that black hole. How do I know they were skewed? I could tell that I wasn’t my normal self in how I interacted with others. Therefore, while in a state like that, I should never have trusted my mind to do something as mentally taxing as philosophy.

I’m not saying you’re in a place like that. I’m just saying that I know what it’s like to find the opposite of Christ easy to embrace even as a Christian. I can empathize with the struggle. And yet, here I am, confidently declaring it should be way easier to believe that torturing babies for fun is really wrong than it should be to embrace an evolutionary naturalism that renders morality illusory. And I stand by that.

Problems with embracing amoral materialism

While it might feel easy in your mind to embrace materialistic thoughts, do you find it as easy to embrace acting consistently with those thoughts? For instance, even if it feels easy to believe that we’re not really forbidden from torturing babies just for fun, do you find it easy to live as if we’re not really forbidden from doing that?

An easy stopping point may be that it’s prudent to not permit torturing babies just for fun, since it would likely lead to our species’ demise if we actively embraced it as permissible. But that’s just to quit thinking materialistically when it seems convenient. If you’re really going to follow that train of thought to its final destination, you can’t stop travelling at that pleasant stop only halfway down the line. Rather, you have to ask: why does our species matter? Why does prudence matter? On materialism, they ultimately don’t. See Answering a moral relativist.

Maybe you don’t want to embrace it because, if you do, you may face unpleasant consequences from others. OK, that might stop you from doing anything about it. But what if someone else doesn’t feel so bothered by those considerations? Would you seek to stop them? If so, why? Prudence and species survival? But they’re still ultimately meaningless, on a materialistic view. It turns out our materialistic train of thought is actually just a meaningless merry-go-round. Any place you choose to get off is ultimately arbitrary. Staying on the merry-go-round, though, will drive you insane. Better minds than mine have been driven to madness by that merry-go-round. (see Nietzsche, the man who took on God and lost!)

‘But maybe the madness reflects reality?’ But how likely is that? Theism offers a simple and elegant link between healthy brain function and the world we live in: God made us to live in this world, and this world to be liveable for us. Naturalistic evolution offers us a mad merry-go-round that can’t know if morals are illusory, or even if naturalistic evolution itself is true.

Under naturalistic evolution, the belief that our moral beliefs are illusory is subject to the same general unreliability as our moral beliefs. After all, it’s produced by the same unreliable brain that produces our illusory moral beliefs. Therefore, under naturalistic evolution we could no more trust the brain-produced belief that morals are illusory than we can trust the brain-produced belief that morals are real. Indeed, this problem can even be expanded to belief in naturalistic evolution itself, since it too is a brain-produced belief on this view. In other words, if naturalistic evolution were true, it would be incoherent to believe it. CMI-US speaker and writer Keaton Halley has written some very helpful articles on this: Monkey minds, Can evolution produce rational minds?, and Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?

But even if it still feels easy to fall to those materialistic thoughts, remember how I said above that the black hole skewed my prior probability judgments? It made assuming the worst easy. But that’s no evidence that the worst is really true. Indeed, such relentless nihilism can be just as much wishful thinking as gullible optimism. ‘You mean, a part of us might want to stay in a nihilistic hole?’ Sure! Why not? After all, if you doubt everything good, you’re not going to be ‘taken in’ by anything good, are you? You won’t ever fall for something because it’s ‘too good to be true’, will you? And that in a strange sort of way can be immensely satisfying. At least, that was my experience. But doubts about God like that deserve to be doubted, even if it takes a lot of effort to keep doing so. God is worth doubting the doubts.

Anyway, that’s just a brief consideration of some of the problems of amoral materialism. The links give more exposition to those points, and provide some other lines of thought as well.

We can’t walk alone

But I don’t want to end with philosophy. Rather, let me encourage you to share your struggles with those around you. Talk to some mature Christians at your local church. Talk to your pastor. And, if it’s appropriate, talk also to your doctor. They’re there to help. And don’t stop going to church, or meeting with Christians, because isolating yourself will only make matters worse. And of course, read the Bible and pray constantly. The Bible doesn’t hide from these troubles; look at Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes. Paul knew a thing or two about suffering as well. None of this is a magical fix; it’s just about putting yourself in a healthy place, which can help relieve some of the darkness. See Dealing with doubt.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Gian B.
Hi Shaun. I am once again impressed at your philosophical answers, but I'm also moved, albeit sentimentally, at your answers as well. It is as if you were pulling an Ecclesiastes out of your arguments (and definitely intentional). I too was in those place, but sadly they keep coming back. I continue to struggle with the darkness and the metaphorical black hole you talked about. Are we so desperate for God that paradoxically we want him away from us? Are we so ashamed at our undoing we can't face The One who gave us all we value? And are we so depraved we would wage hate and wrath at The Creator who willingly chose to save us from this? Do we cling to such gullible extremes (nihilistic and positivist) to satisfy all we want, happiness, pleasure, revenge, even love? Aye, it's all a grasping of the wind. And you are right, philosophy is intellectually enticing, but once we take it away from God we are just feeding on our own dusts. The purpose of life is meaningless under the sun. Everything under the sun is boring, pathetic and even evil and all because we thought we could shape our future without Him (positivism), and now look at us, pulling our own weight and crawling at our own black sands, and declaring everything useless (nihilism). It's all so damning. This is a taste of Hell: nihilism, unfulfilled wishes, wishful thinking with no merit, shame. Unquenchable shame. Everytime I fall I keep thinking like a lost, abandoned, blood-filled hand samurai who lost his way and looking for a savior to lift all the shame and disgrace I've stumbled upon, and that's Jesus Christ who I'm always looking up to. The thief comes to steal and destroy life, but Christ came to give us that. This is our undoing, but in Christ we find forgiveness. Thanks, Shaun. May The Lord bless you. :)
Nathan G.
The Bible commands us to doubt. It instructs us to examine everything and keep only that which is good. Doubt is OK; hopeless, brainless, fatalistic skepticism is not.

You said it is tempting "to just believe materialistic notions because they don’t require intellectual strength, just “feeling faith”". The real question is whether you want to belong to the club of the weak and weak-minded or not. After all, the Bible commands us to worship God with all our heart, soul, MIND, and STRENGTH. The broad path and gate are a con, even if they are personally satisfying. God wants quality, not quantity, in his followers.

You have doubt? My first step would be to doubt materialism. Is anything not made of matter and energy? That's easy: philosophy, mathematics, the idea of infinity, zero, timelessness, unicorns, etc. So materialism is wrong as an answer, even in science.

I like to let my opponents argue my point for me. Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex really condemns atheism far worse than it does Christianity. In The Illusion of Future, Freud haughtily calls all religions an illusion. But illusions are based upon something real. And atheism is a religion, so it too must be mere wish fulfillment, bent on killing the ultimate father. Atheists are neurotic by Freud's own definition. Freud was also disingenuous, since he avoided religion like the plague all his life, then wrote this essay as his "expert" opinion on faith, not as psychoanalysis!

Christian psychologist Paul C. Vitz wrote two books, which show the real choices behind the easy path of atheism and the pathological family conditions behind the most famous atheists of the last 150 years: "Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious" and "Faith of the Fatherless". Give them a read. They're good.

Hope this helps.
Terry D P.
When the Serpent tempts us to disbelieve the Word of God as he did with Adam and Eve…
‹/ He said to the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman answered the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except for the tree in the middle of the garden; God has forbidden us either to eat or to touch the fruit of that; if we do, we shall die.’ The serpent said, ‘Of course you will not die. God knows that as soon as you eat it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods [or God] knowing both good and evil.’ /›
…and we believe his lie that the Word of God in Genesis is not true, we immediately discover as Adam and Eve did, the darkness of death and gloom of black depression descending upon our minds.
The best thing to do is immediately resist his temptation to disbelieve/disobey the Word of God, because we know from long experience, from the Garden of Eden until now, that disbelief in the Word of God inevitably plunges our minds into darkness.
Satan has from the beginning masquerade as an angel of light/truth, subtly beguiling us into rationalise the Truth into a Lie.
Richard L.
There is a seeming (insidious) morally-superior tone, J.R., to the materialistic argument prodding your question. While I haven’t experienced what you or Shaun have, here are 2 (hopefully, non-confounding & Shaun’s-points reinforcing) thoughts towards (Rom. 12:2) you recalibrating your perception.

#1 Reductionistic-materialistic atheism leads to absurdity (Romans 1:18-25), in the area of science / cosmological-argument. Why, then, feel obligation to its apparent-moral-superiority but substance-less “moral” arguments? It has to believe that Nothing made Everything. Clearly inadequate causation! That the cosmos elements came only from internal resources, acting only randomly. That its start-state had to be at maximum randomness. (Anything else risks deity existing.) Since we are at a higher state today, the cosmos has to be self-organizing (indefinitely) upwards—through random-activity causation!?! But random activity ultimately lowers—not raises—the organization state of a system. An absurd (needed) conclusion.

Second, spot temptations that tug us toward that way of thought. Some are ego-stroking but can appear noble. The biggest tug for me: if reality reduces to the cosmos, future scientists can scientifically explore all of reality! I know it’s wrong, but it still tugs my science-loving heart. A moral-looking tug: “You Christians are egotistical, making the earth the center of the universe. We [atheists, more humble] believe in an ordinary earth in an ordinary galaxy somewhere in the universe.” Let us notice that they have eliminated superior Intellect. Very ego-stroking! “To be self-honest, we have to eat the forbidden fruit.” No! God gives us all good things, in His time. “Then we will know fully, as we are fully known”. Please meditate on such verses.
John B.
Hi Shaun,
Thank you for your thoughtful, God honouring (wisdom that He gives) & gentle reply to our brother who asked the questions re morality & our human kind.
You 'wear your heart on your sleeve' brother when you are so open & honest as to share some of your own journey as a human & Christian.
I can relate to a lot of what you said. It's only by donning the Armor supplied by our Lord Jesus & His Holy Spirit that I haven't gone down dark paths that you talked about.
Thank you Shaun, may He continue to bless the work of your heart, mind & hands.
Lassi P.
A good question with a good answer.

This article delves deep in every area it touches. Articles like this don't come by often. The imagery of a dark pit and mindless merry go round are both striking and fitting for what they describe. And the point about how there are no values in atheism/nihilism, and the other one about how it just makes sense to trust our brains when they say that morality exists, are in an intellectual sense beautiful.

Ps. I meant every word.
Chuck R.
For many the biggest attraction to atheism is that it’s carefree, no responsibilities, or more simply: its fun.
My brother is a devout atheist (yes, it is a religion) and he has stated to me his core belief, the logical conclusion of atheism; “it doesn’t matter what we believe”, which is as Paul said when he quoted Isaiah in 1 Cor. 15:32 “If the dead do not rise, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!". The carefree, irresponsible, do whatever you want life that atheism proclaims is very attractive to many people.
Arthur G.
Reading this article I was reminded of the fundamental doubts that can plague any Christian. I am prone to Churchill's 'black dog' myself, so I can empathize with the situation.

May I suggest reading Os Guinness' book "God in the Dark, The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt," published by Crossway Books, 1996. It was tremendously helpful to me in resolving some of the materialist philosophy that permeates our civilization. It is also helpful in providing rational content that opposes materialism and in providing apologetic material for the theistic view of life and destiny.

Beyond that, when doubt creeps in, I always remind myself that fulfilled biblical prophecy is the emblem of supernatural truth, and the validation of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Don Batten
While Os Guiness wrote some helpful things (I remember reading his Dust of Death with appreciation), he was not 'on the page' about biblical creation (the historicity of Genesis), and so his arguments were incomplete as a comprehensive defense of Christian theism (as per many popular apologists today, sadly).
Bruce B.
What a wonderful, honest and wise reply! Thank you, Shaun, for sharing your own testimony as well. Philosophy seems a fascinating place to play mind games if that's what you enjoy doing but it can also be a dark, dangerous and disorientating place particularly when we're having spiritual and emotional struggles.
One of the great blessings a Christian can enjoy is having a simple, straightforward and completely trustworthy reference for every aspect of our lives, our Lord Jesus Christ! The Bible tells us to cling to Him. There's no better advice for a human being.
May the Lord continue to bless the wonderful work of CMI!
B L.
we need to believe in the LORD's Word and just have faith in It. it's that simple. :).

Proverbs 3:5-7 tells us:

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.
Grahame G.
G'day Shaun, thank you so much for sharing your personal testimony in this. It is great to hear the struggles that others have.

And I love your point that the Bible doesn't hide from these struggles. We should not be ashamed that we are not perfect. God knows our problems.

And the best thing we can do is to be honest with ourselves and Him. Casting all your care upon Him because He cares for you (I Peter 5:7).

And James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins (faults) to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
Dean R.
Feelings come and go & personal interest is a broad and intertwined term maybe similar to ease which also has consequences.

Selfish desire and Godly desire that instructs us to love God and our neighbour are poles apart. We see both in the life of Solomon and ourselves at times.

In the life of Jesus in the flesh we see godliness in its fullest measure and His life was not easy due to dark and oppressive forces at work in the world.Yet in Him we overcome.

Life and salvation is not so much about ease but we are often tempted to think along such lines. "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die."

The wide gate does seem and look easy, the narrow gate not so much,yet its destination is pure joy and goodness without a hint of darkness.

Atheism seems to be a clever deception and a partial truth that delves into subjective ideas that cannot be tested and ought not to be trusted, even as she beckons much.

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