The Existence of God
a talk by Ravi Zacharias
Zacharias reads Nietzsche's famous Parable of the Madman which beautifully expresses the feeling of losing what was once the central point that made sense of life. More specifically, Nietzsche seems to have been alleging that his contemporary society had done something which would — in time — lead to a fundamental shift away from the living theism of the past. Perhaps the rise of modern science or even German biblical criticism is what he had in mind; both have certainly inflicted grave wounds on the public assumption of theism in Europe.
Another way to read this parable is to conclude, as Zacharias does, that "the implications of a godless universe" are grim. I would suggest this imagery is more about the shock of changing worldviews than about life without theistic belief in general.
Atheism & Morality
The first of three philosophical problems of atheism, according to Zacharias, is the impossibility of morality without a moral law giver.
Now, I do grant the fact that atheists disagree quite a bit about the nature of morality. But then so do theists! Some theists say moral rightness is whatever God commands. Others say moral rightness is consistency with whatever God's nature is. An especially popular theistic theory of morality these days is that moral rightness is what is commanded by a loving God.
See the shift from arbitrary power to the concept of love? From here, it would be a small step to say moral rightness is what a loving person — with a grasp of relevant facts — would do without being commanded.
This is one plausible way of understanding morality without invoking God.
I suppose an apologist could say, "You atheists aren't doing what is morally right, you're just being loving to others!" But that wouldn't play quite as well to certain audiences as the way Zacharias associates atheistic morality with baby raping in this talk. Yes, he does that. It reminds me of how William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith associates atheism with Nazi vivisections of pregnant women, before he gets around to arguing for the existence of God. This is called poisoning the well, a rhetorical tactic intended to make fair discussion impossible from the outset.
Atheism & Meaning
It is apparently of great importance to some people that the human species was created on purpose, and that each individual person has a life-task assigned by God. I've played enough task-oriented vs. open-ended videogames to understand the comfort of strict direction and the unease — at first — of finding one's own tasks.
Atheism, according to Zacharias, "takes you out of the realm of meaning." It really only takes a person out of the realm of certain kinds of meaning. It does not remove, e.g. the life-meaning found in developing friendships, in learning about the world, and in raising children.
If we look back to Nietzsche's parable, it's important to notice that life still goes on. Carl Sagan left us with prose poetry along similar lines, which I heartily recommend: A Universe Not Made For Us.
Atheism & Hope
Atheism supposedly offers "no hope" because it doesn't feature an afterlife. That's an amazing statement to make right after a talk about how God will put most people in Hell forever with no hope of relief.
Would it be nice to live a good life forever? Certainly! But it doesn't follow that we can reject a worldview just because it lacks this amenity.
Positive Argument #1: Contingency
Quoting Dallas Willard, Zacharias claims:
"However concrete physical reality is sectioned up, the result will be a state of affairs which owes its being to something other than itself."1This flagrantly begs the question against physicalism. Sure, if we assume physical reality is explained by something else, then we can safely conclude that something besides physical reality exists.
We could even agree that something besides physical reality exists and not grant that a supernatural person exists, because it is possible that the natural world itself extends beyond the sort of things studied by physics.
So we have a non-argument against physicalism, when an irrefutable knock-down argument against physicalism would still fail to show there is a God.
Positive Argument #2: Finite Series of Causes
From Willard again:
"[E]very physical state, no matter how inclusive, has a necessary condition in some specific type of state which immediately precedes it in time and is fully existent prior to the emergence of the state which it conditions."Zacharias lays out the implication, "You cannot have an infinite series of causes in time, because if you had to have the infinite series of causes it would never have arrived at this moment."
There are at least two difficulties with this argument. First, it confuses the nature of finite and infinite quantities. For any particular event in an infinite past, there would be a way to "get here from there." I believe the intuition here is that you can't construct an infinite series from a non-infinite series by adding one item, then another, and so on. So it sounds to me like a hidden assumption of a finite past is being brought in conflict with the question of an infinite past.
Second, the philosophy and science of causation in time is not — to my knowledge — a remotely settled matter, especially when it comes to the cosmological issues under question here.
Positive Argument #3: Design.
Zacharias briefly touches on the argument from design by citing cosmological fine-tuning: the apparent fact that certain values in physics have to be precisely right for a world like ours to be possible.
The chief problem I have with fine-tuning arguments is that they rely on the assumption that not having a good natural explanation of these values today means there isn't a good natural explanation to be found tomorrow. Scientific discovery often turns up new questions without immediate answers. It may even be a religious disservice to insert God wherever humans are currently ignorant, then shoo God back into the darkness whenever we figure something out.
Positive Argument #4: Gospel.
Basically, the words and deeds of Jesus resonate with people in a way that demonstrates (to Christians) that he could have only been divine.
I've noticed that Muslims tend to feel the same way about the Qur'an. Mormons have spoken to me about the witness of the Holy Spirit in their heart when they read their relatively new scriptures. Having positive feelings about one's own religion is not a reliable indicator of truth.
So is there a God? I don't know. The evidence appears consistent with both atheism and deism. Choosing between these positions seems to be a matter of personal philosophy in the face of insufficient evidence either way.
On the other hand, I'm quite sure there isn't a God who is interested in everyone responding to him in some appropriate way. Such a God would have the motive, intelligence, and power to unmistakably communicate his desire to all human beings. Since this has not happened, such a God does not exist.
1. I found the quote here: http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=42