Dialog with an atheist.

October 18, 2014.

The scene is set in a research lab late one night as two collaborating doctoral candidates are busily working to get the data they need to publish this last paper, hopefully giving one candidate solidifying evidence to defend his dissertation and setting the other well on her way to follow down the same path. The experiments have been started and the two students are playing the waiting game that so often consumes the lives of working scientists when a conversation emerges from the distress of the older’s students prospective postdoctoral fellowship. We listen in as a fly on the wall.

“It’s just not fair. I’ve published in all the right journals, put in so many hours of work and utilized my network to it capacity. It’s just not fair!”

“What are you talking about?”

“They turned me down for a postdoc at UF; said there were a lot of qualified applicants and they couldn’t offer me the position at this time.”

“You wanted to go to Florida?”

“Yeah, I’ve always liked Florida. And there is a professor there working on novel type II diabetes treatment that looks promising. I figured that in a year or two it could go into clinical trials.”

“Man, that does sound interesting. I’m sorry you didn’t get the position. Have you looked anywhere else?”

“Yeah, I’ve looked at a couple of other places, but I really wanted to go to Florida. I don’t understand. My application was loaded, four first author papers, three other papers and a fellowship. They probably picked someone else based on things that are out of my control. I hear that they are being pressured to diversify their department, and I don’t fit that criteria.”

“It’s just so hard to get into programs these days. Seems like there are so many young scientists that are all applying for the same positions, with basically the same impressive backgrounds. I thank God that I made it into this program. I know there were many applicants even here.”

“What do you mean, you ‘thank god’? You got into this program on your own hard work.”

“Sure, I worked hard to get into this program, but only through His helping hand have I made it this far. I could have done all the work in the world, won two nobel prizes and cured cancer, but if He didn’t want me to be somewhere, I guarantee you I wouldn’t be there.”

“That’s just silly. With two nobel prizes you could get in anywhere. Don’t you think that’s a little naive?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean the whole ‘god’ thing really. I mean, you are in a scientific field working on a Ph.D. in the biological sciences. Don’t you think the two can’t really coexist?”

“Why not?”

“Because science is continuing to reveal more and more secretes of how the world began. With each revelation, the religious world has to take two steps back. Eventually it will be a thing of the past.”

“I don’t think so”

“Why not?”

“The study of science has been around for a long time, but spirituality has been around for longer, and it still persists today.”

“Yeah, but we have are making remarkable scientific discoveries today and a phenomenal rate. I just don’t see how spirituality can stand up to the facts.”

“Well, really people have been making scientific discoveries for a long time too. And a lot of those discoveries have since been overturned and even laughed at by modern science.”

“Well of course they have. We called the guy who first showed that hand washing was a good practice for preventing the spread of disease crazy. But that was then, and this is now.”

“If we could be wrong then, what makes today any different?”

“Because… we are smarter, are we not?”

“Perhaps in some ways. But I would argue that some of the minds of history were much smarter than us today. I mean, Newton straight invented calculus because he needed that branch of math to explain the laws of motion. He didn’t have the mathematical tools to describe them, so he literally just invented them. That’s phenomenal.”

“That’s true. But we have some great minds today as well. Steven Hawking would laugh at the notion of god.”

“Indeed we do. But I would not rest my whole belief system on one scientist. There have been plenty before him and are still today who are staunch deists.”

“I would say the number is decreasing as our understanding of nature grows.”

“Maybe, but I think that the voice of those who are not believers in a higher power is just growing louder.”

“How do you sit through a biology class and take tests about the origin of life? How do you reconcile that with your spirituality?”

“I honestly think that any science that theorizes about the origin of life as fact is going beyond the bounds of science itself. Science, in its most simplistic definition, is simply observation. There is no way to ever prove something that happened an alleged 4.5 billion years ago by making an observation in a test tube today. Sure, you can hypothesize about it, but to teach it as fact is a bit misguided.”

“Yet we can draw implications from our observations. Theories aren’t based on nothing. They are made because there is solid evidence that supports the hypothesis. Once more evidence is accumulated and the hypothesis is supported enough times, then it becomes a law. You’re looking at theories as the world outside of academia views them, but they hold so much more weight than that.”

“I know the difference between a scientific theory and a theory as defined outside of academia. However, theories are still theories. There have been many scientific theories in the past that are now thought of as ludicrous. And many of the ideas that were once though preposterous are now widely accepted. Even the laws of motion are being questioned by quantum physicist today! These are scientific laws that have been proven time and again… yet our interpretation of them for hundreds of years seems to have been wrong. That’s the beauty of science- it’s ever changing and evolving.”

“I find it ironic that you used the term ‘evolving’.”

“Haha I figured you would like that.”

“So you think that what is accepted about evolution will one day be disproven?”

“Perhaps, though probably not disproven. The theory of evolution rests on some fair evidences and makes some good points from observation, at least in theory.”

“So you think it makes good points, but you don’t believe it? Now you’re starting to sound like a deist indeed.”

“It makes some good points, yes, and parts of the theory have been shown to be true, at least by our interpretation. But the overall theory of macroevolution is simply a stretch. You can see a few things about how microevolution happens today, but to extend these observations to apply to the origin of life is far fetched. It simply doesn’t take into account all the eloquent details that we have discovered about nature. It is an over simplification that kinda works in theory but falls apart very quickly when you look at the details. The statistical probability of the origin of life through random chance is for all practical purposes zero.”

“Just because we don’t know everything about evolution yet doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The very fact that we are here would lend evidence to its validity. It doesn’t really matter what the odds were since we are here and we can see the evidence.”

“But you’re making an assumption there. You are assuming that random chance is indeed what caused life to be set in motion. You’re basing your interpretation of the world on, well, faith. Faith that there was a primordial soup, some lightening struck the chemicals and created the building blocks of life, which then went on to combine in a complex manner just to start the process. That’s actually a lot of faith.”

“You can call it whatever you would like. You are making an assumption too.”

“Ah yes, which is ironically called faith, is it not? But I, like you, base my faith on a preponderance of evidence for God.”

“Oh really?”

“Sure. There are many evidences that strengthen my faith. Even from science. That’s not really that surprising to me, as I believe God created the laws of nature. Science is just our method to exploring them.”

“But faith just seems so… dated. Why would I want to believe in a god who told me what I had to do? I don’t understand what you gain from it.”

“It’s not about what I gain, though the reward is eternal, but more about finding the truth, and serving the Almighty who created everything. We live only because He made us. I serve Him because His very essence demands it. It is a great thing to be with God.”

“But how do you know? I trust in science because it generates hard evidences. Observations that I can see and follow. Results that I can reproduce to physically experience. How is that possible with spirituality?”

“Believe it or not, there is evidence that you can experience on your own that if logically followed to its end, leads to God.”

“What’s that?”

“Let’s start of from the beginning of our conversation. You said that it wasn’t fair that you didn’t get that postdoctoral position in Florida, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What makes it unfair?”

“I was well qualified. Someone else got the position based on things outside of merit.”

“So what?”

“So what? If they are choosing based on gender instead of scientific success, then that’s… it’s just wrong.”

“Who says?”

“It just is. Anyone in my position would think the same thing. Do you think it’s right to do that?”

“No, I don’t. But where did you get your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong?”

“From the society and culture I grew up in. You don’t need god to have morals, you know.”

“Ah, yes. There are indeed many people who don’t believe in God who have an outstanding moral character. But my question is where did moral character come from?”

“It can be explained with a selective advantage. Morality typically does good for the species, does it not?”

“In some ways I’m sure, but we are again oversimplifying the details. What makes something wrong? It everything happened from a material cause, there really cannot be any definite right or wrongs.”

“Sure there can. What’s right is whatever leads towards the selective advantage.”

“But you are personifying evolution when you make that statement. Selection of the fittest does not have guidance. Nothing is right or wrong in selection. You either survive and pass on your genes, or you don’t. If you don’t survive, it doesn’t make whatever you did wrong. It just means you didn’t pass on your genes. And when you look even further into the details, you see that many things that should not have a selective advantage indeed get passed on due to other reason or by simply chance. Does that make it right?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Okay, lets say that birds who have stronger beaks are selected for on a particular island. Does that mean that a bird without as strong of a beak than the rest of the population is wrong?”

“No, it is just selected against.”

“Exactly. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

“Of course not. A physical characteristic can’t be wrong or right.”

“I agree, yet many staunch evolutionists would disagree with you, saying that those who are the best fit to survive are superior, or better than a lower class.”

“Of course, here comes the Hitler argument.”

“Hitler was one of many, but I’m not going into that. But let’s say that a selective advantage did imply morality. Let’s say that this bird with a weaker beak by chance survives, as is the case in macroevolution. Does that mean that since that bird survived, than it was right for having a weaker beak?”

“No, statistics takes care of the genes that get through when they should have been selected against.”

“Right. So selection by survival of the fittest can in no way imply morality.”

“Well sure, but I don’t see your point.”

“My question remains. Where does your concept of morality come from?”

“From society.”

“But it has no evolutionary basis?”

“Not in the strictest sense, but doing good does influence our progeny.”

“So does doing bad at times.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if you wanted to make sure your genes got passed on to the next generation, which is the driving force of evolution, you could do something that most everyone would consider to be horrific and go out and kidnap and rape a multitude of women. The odds are some would get pregnant and carry your child to term.”

“That’s awful! Why would you ever think of that?”

“I agree that it is wrong. I’m just saying it would be a way to pass on your genes. Do you not think that that happens in the animal kingdom? Males often mate based on drive alone. Who are you to say that drive is wrong?”

“Well, the majority of people say its wrong. That’s how we decide our morals- by the majority.”

“Are you sure you want to take that stance?”

“Not really.”

“Haha, I wouldn’t either. But let’s say you do. Who is the majority?”

“Whichever side has the most votes in a population.”

“Okay, let’s consider a population of 1,000 villagers on a remote island. 80% of the villagers, due to their upbringing, agree that a certain annual festival they have that ends in the group rape and sacrifice of a chosen virgin is indeed what should happen in order to bring peace and entertainment to the village. Is rape and human sacrifice in this case right?”

“Right in what sense?”

“Right as in the right thing to do. Do you believe that it is the right thing to do for that group.”

“Well, no. I don’t think rape and murder are ever the right thing to do. But that’s because I wasn’t brought up in their culture.”

“So, it would be right for them to do it, just not for you?”

“Well… no.”

“And now we arrive at the problem of morality for those who don’t believe in god. If there is no higher power that defines right and wrong, then there is no right and wrong. Yet we all posses this innate sense of morality that crosses time and culture. It is often referred to as moral law.”

“Moral law? Wait a minute. There have been plenty of immoral things done in the name of religion!”

“Yes, unfortunately there have been. But the mistakes of humans does not get rid of the concept of moral law. Just because we often break this law does not man it doesn’t exist. Nor do our missteps imply a bad character of the higher power we serve. That would be like saying a bad waitress means the company is bad as a whole.”

“So, you think that the presence of morality is evidence of a supreme being?”

“Yes. You cannot define right or wrong without an ultimate good. We often do not live up to that standard, but the very concept demands a higher power.”

“So, religion is just a bunch of rules.”

“Some see it that way. Christianity is so much more than that, however. In fact, it is based on the fact that we fail to reach this standard that has been necessarily set by an ultimate good, and the good news that this failure has been taken care of as salvation is offered to all.”

“That doesn’t really make sense to me.”

“That’s because you need to hear the background. Perhaps we can discuss it further?”

“Our data is in! Yeah, perhaps we can. Let’s get done with this tonight though so we can go home.”

“Okay. This has been a great discussion. What a lovely way to pass the time.”

________________________________________

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
(Romans 10:14-15)

Suggested Daily Reading: Isaiah 52, Matthew 28, Romans 10, I Corinthians 2.

Glory be to God.

-Walter

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