Monday, September 24, 2007

Book: Encountering Naturalism

Most of us have a worldview – a set of beliefs about what exists, how reality is organized, and how we fit into it. Whether explicit or not, a worldview helps to shape our goals and actions; it’s an overarching cognitive framework that helps us to make sense of things, practically, ethically and existentially.

With this as his introduction, Thomas Clark begins his exploration of naturalism, the worldview to which most atheists subscribe. In just under 100 pages, this book provides a brief overview of the topic.

What is naturalism? On page 1:

In a nutshell, the naturalism I’ll present holds that there is a single, natural, physical world in which we are completely included. There isn’t a separate supernatural or immaterial realm and there’s nothing supernatural or immaterial about us.

In other words, naturalism is the belief that the universe is entirely natural, a completely whole unit. It doesn’t consider the existence of supernatural phenomena, such as God, the soul, or life after death.

What informs this worldview? Clark argues that science is the driver of naturalism, as it unifies our view of what exists by showing the natural connections between different things:

Naturalism takes science, and more broadly a rational, evidence-based empiricism, as the most reliable means for discovering what exists. If we stick with science, the world is united in our understanding, not divided into the natural versus the supernatural. Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely joined to the natural world, which encompasses culture and biology.

In other words, naturalism holds that human beings are fully part of this natural universe; everything about us, including our minds, is connected to everything else in a natural state of cause and effect. We are, in the words of Clark, completely at home in this world.

But any worldview has its perceived problems, and Clark provides reassurance to those who worry that naturalism leads to fatalism, meaningless, or immorality. He also discusses possible advantages that naturalism can provide for individuals, relationships and society.

The briefness of the book is its major downfall. I would consider myself a budding naturalist, but I still have problems with some of the finer implications of such a worldview. For example, although Clark, like Daniel Dennett, believes that naturalism entails a totally deterministic universe, he argues that humans still have free will (although not free will in the traditional sense). This is an issue that I still have to grapple with, and although the topic is covered concisely, the length of the book doesn’t allow for in-depth discussion.

In a nutshell: as an introduction to naturalism the book does the job well, but for the finer details one would have to read more widely. I think Clark realises this - he provides a detailed list of sources at the end of the book that one can consult for further reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

God and the concept of goodness

I would like to ask Christians the following question: what would God have to do in order for you to call him evil?

The God of the Bible, especially the one of the Old Testament, seems to do horrible things to people (see my post Following God’s example). I ask this question because apologists spend a great deal of energy defending the biblical actions of the Christian God; they would never consider him evil, despite what he has done.

My last post, Dear Father, highlighted the difficulties in reconciling the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God with the existence of suffering. The argument that God has to shoulder some, if not all, of the responsibility for evil in the world is an argument that many apologists tackle in earnest. No apologist would consider God evil for allowing the existence of evil, despite the fact that they believe he created everything, and that he knew beforehand the suffering that evil would cause.

I could be wrong, but it seems apologists believe that God is good, despite what we read in the Bible or experience in the world. If this is the case, then doesn’t the very statement ‘God is good’ loose all meaning?

George H. Smith, in Atheism: The Case Against God, writes on page 85:

. . . by what standard does the Christian claim that God is good? What criterion is the Christian using? If man cannot pass correct moral judgments, he cannot validly praise or condemn anything--including the Christian God. To exclude God from the judgment of evil is to exclude him from the judgment of good as well.

In other words, by defending the Christian God, apologists have created a situation in which we are unable to discern a good God from a bad God; because, whatever God does or whatever he allows – no matter how shocking it might be to human sensibilities – the apologist would still consider God as being good.

If there are no criteria to judge God’s actions, to discern good from bad – or if there are no conceivable actions of God that would count as contrary evidence of his goodness – then doesn’t the very concept of good become meaningless?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Dear Father

A believer kneels to pray . . .

Dear Father, they say that you are all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing. But Father, try as I might, I can not reconcile this with what I see in the world around me.

Dear Father, if you are all-knowing, why did you not warn us of 9/11 if you knew it was going to happen? Any person, with any prior knowledge of the attacks, and with a shred of moral fibre, would have warned the authorities. Why did you simply sit by when you knew what the terrorists were planning? By willingly withholding such vital information, are you not partly responsible for the lives that were lost that day?

Why do you not intervene when you see all the rape, crime or murder? Police forces around the world – some of them stretched to breaking point from lack of resources – are trying their best to stop people doing horrible things to each other. But you, an all-powerful God, do not seem to provide any assistance.

I’ve been taught that you look after the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, and that we should not be concerned about our basic needs because you care far more for us. But Father, do you not care for those thousands of individuals who die annually in Africa from disease and chronic starvation? Why do you meet my needs, but not theirs? Aid organisations work around the clock to fight what seems like a loosing battle, but I do not see you helping them in any way.

I’m beginning to think, Father, that you are either incapable of helping, unwilling to help, or ignorant of what is going on. If you are unwilling to help, how can I have any respect for you: an all-powerful being that can make all the difference, but willingly chooses not to do so?

How can I love you, Father, if this is what you are?