Let’s take stock of the main tensions facing both Christianity and Atheism. Just the essential ones, not contingent issues, like whether or not Hitler was a Christian or an Atheist (FYI, he was a Pantheist), or whether or not all Atheists are also Marxists (FYI, they’re not). Rather, what are the substantive metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and existential problems for each world view? Let’s reckon those costs and see where the chips fall.
- The Problem of Evil and Suffering: In short, how can an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow not only moral evil (e.g. rape, genocide), but the kind of suffering that is caused by purely natural mechanisms (e.g. tsunamis and cancer)? Where did all this evil come from, if evil is actually real? And, if there is a God, is He really good?
- The Darwinian Model of the Origin of Life: There are two problems here. First, the Darwinian story of life’s evolution, to include human life, doesn’t seem to match up very well with the biblical story of the origin of life, to include the first human, as told in Genesis 1-3. Genetic & fossil records meet the biblical record, is an awkward introduction, to say the least. Second, even if those two narratives are reconcilable, which some Christians believe they are, then how does one reconcile the presence of death and suffering right from the beginning of creation? How can animal death, predation, and species extinction, to include species, who were apparently human-like, be indicative of a “good creation?” The Darwinian Model of evolutionary biology has thrown the Christian doctrines of Creation and Anthropology, especially the doctrine of Original Sin, into a tailspin (well, sort of).
- Bible Difficulties: Third, are all those difficult Bible verses, not only the ones we don’t understand because of cultural and historical distance (e.g. “Wait, where can I slaughter my ox?”), but those that seem to rub against our contemporary moral tastes, that seem historically inaccurate, or even internally inconsistent (e.g. “Who tempted David to take that census?,” or the classic, “How many women were at that tomb again?”).
- Hell: Finally, there is the problem of Hell, and I mean Hell as a conscious and eternal torment of all who refuse to accept Jesus as their Messiah, Lord, and as God. Harsh, or so it seems, and with the emerging awareness of religious pluralism since the 16th & 17th centuries, apparently unjust too. I mean, Ghandi, really?
These are not easy problems to solve, and, as I pointed out above, they entail serious metaphysical, epistemological, and moral dilemmas. It is not my focus in this post to begin offering my own apologetic responses, however. Here, I am just taking stock of what a Christian will inevitably face, if she decides to look squarely at her faith.
So, how does Atheism fair in comparison?
- Moral Values & Obligations: Even if we posit something like abstract objects, which few atheist want to do, to ground moral values in a transcendent reality, whence the obligation to actually fulfill them? Just cause Plato said so? I think not. The Moral Project of the Enlightenment has roundly failed to produce sound answers to the problem of objective moral values and duties. It’s no wonder that moral realism is on the rebound as “do what you feel” has epically failed as an answer to the quest for moral truth. Moreover, that the consistent atheist will also be a Nietzschean ethicist, is always a real and present danger.
- Human Consciousness: Attempts have been made to explain it, ranging from Emergentism, Functionalism, Epiphenomenalism, to, well, Pan-psychism. You name it, it’s been tried. It’s a mystery, but, if you are not your brain, then minimally the materialism part of atheism is false (well, unless leptons have agency, but let’s not go there). Further, if you tenaciously hold to materialism at all costs, well, then you just might be hallucinating as you read this…if there even is a real “you” that hallucinates?
- Human Freedom: This follows from the problem of consciousness, since if you don’t even exist as a real, let alone rational, self…well then, what is reading this sentence…and why? Oh, and Lift you’re right hand right now! Wait, “Who” did that? Not you!
- The Problem of Evil: Following from 1-3, it seems that to call something “evil” is really just a useful fiction. Physical pain, yes, but any kind or instance of human evil would just be reduced to pain, having little or no real moral quality or content. The bodies of those people we call Jews experienced more frequently and with greater intensity the firing of C-fibers in the prison camps than those bodies of the people we call Nazis who made them. But whether or not evil was done to to the one group or by the other is, at best, unclear.
- Meaning and Purpose: No transcendental reality, no transcendental story. You came from nothing, you’re going nowhere, no one had you in mind. Do your best to make something up worth living for…and do it fast, because you’ll be dead soon.
- Existence, at All: Ex nihilo nihil fit…I guess, ahh maybe, or, I just dunno. After all, the universe really doesn’t seem like it should be here, does it? Oh well, as long as universes can pop into existence, uncaused, out of nothing, why question any further.
As far as I see it, these are the fundamental problems facing the Christian and the Atheist. Certainly examples could be multiplied, but these seem to underlie the rest. So, which set of problems seems more disconcerting to you?