Monday, August 22, 2011

Are we Headed for Trouble?

Several years ago I sent a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star & Tribune in which I expressed my conern about the unintended consequences of our unquestioning commitment to secularism. Two recent events reminded me of the point I was trying to make in the letter. The first event were the riots in London, Philadelphia, and Chicago, while the second was the brouhaha created by Gov. Perry's remarks about evolution and global warming. Now what, pray tell, could riots have to do with a politician's controversial opinions, and beyond that, with secularism?

While it's not readily apparent, they are connected, they both arise from our current view of our world and of ourselves. The legacy of the Enlightenment is that a large number of people in the Western world believe we live in a world shaped entirely by natural forces. The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell explained where this belief takes us,

That man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving that his origin, his growth, his hopes, his fears, his loves, and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all devotions, all inspiration, all the noon day brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not beyond dispute, are, yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built. (Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship)

Ideas affect the way we live, and this idea has deeply impacted modern Western culture. Russell is expressing the logical conclusion of the enlightenment. If the religious beliefs of mankind are the product of the superstitious imagination of pre-scientific men, and the assured result of 300 years of scientific research is that matter and material forces are the only reality, then we are left with the world that Bertrand Russell describes. It is a world devoid of significance and meaning. Russell is not alone in his deductions, most of the art, philosophy, and music of the twentieth century were a reflection of his "unyielding despair." All one has to do is read Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman or visit a modern art gallery or listen to a composition by John Cage to see the loss of hope and faith in the modern world.

There is a term for this philosophy of nothingness, it is called nihilism. The goal of the enlightenment was unlimited human freedom. But to achieve this end it had to kick God off the stage of human history, the unintended consequence of this rebellion is the elimination of every sustaining influence for good, including freedom, in the world. We are left with (according to Richard Dawkins) only the illusion of a human soul and so, "free will," our sense of control over our thoughts, actions, goals, and our conscience is only our brain playing tricks on us. We are, thus, reduced to a short life span in a meaningless universe, in which all of our thoughts and acts are attributed to stimulus-response mechanisms. A more cynical view of human nature could hardly be imagined.

It seems to me that nihilism has arisen as the unintended consequence of the desire for purely secular societies. In a nihilist world, there are only two options: pure hedonism or existentialism. The vast majority, and that includes those who have no idea of the philosophical principles behind it, have embraced hedonism. The riots in London and Philadelphia are part of the breakdown of decency, honesty, and concern for others (and their property) that accompany an "anything goes" culture. The world of Jersey Shore is a classic example of the nihilism of modern youth culture. It is "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die," lived out for all to see. This is essentially cultural child abuse, as we leave our children without faith and therefore without hope.

There is no future for a generation that embraces the non-values of nihilism. It is definitely one of my fears that as the "nones" grow more numerous (15% of our youth now mark "none" for any religious affiliation and it is projected to become 20-25% in the next decades) we will be ill prepared as a nation for the many challenges we will face in this new century. The response to austerity by the youth of London (Europe is way ahead of us in the influence of secularism) was definitely not re-assuring.

We talk a great deal about the importance of education, but if we aren't teaching our kids the right things then education is not the solution, it becomes part of the problem. So, if our goal is to promote secularism through education then we are really promoting the worldview of "unyielding despair" that Russell describes. By the way, Christians are often accused of seeking to "impose" their values on society. But whose values are actually being forced upon us through the classroom, in the media, through the courts, and by legislation? Just look at what is deemed illegal; prayer, Bible reading, the posting of the Ten Commandments, even Christmas trees, and then tell us what is being imposed upon whom. A high school calculus teacher was recently ordered to remove banners from the classroom that declared, "In God we trust," and "All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with these inalienable rights..." We are sending a very loud message to our children, religion is illegal, even harmful. We are no longer neutral, we have made secularism the politically correct worldview of Western culture.

This is where evolution comes into the picture. I argue in my book that naturalism and therefore secularism are built upon the theory of evolution. Without evolution they can not have a naturalistic and atheistic explanation of life and mankind. The approach the educators, judges, and leaders of our society have taken is that the science is "settled" and the only acceptable answer to our origin is evolution. But what if the science isn't "settled," and this is another example of the abuse of science for the sake of ideology and poltical control?

At the heart of the secular worldview is the philosophy of naturalism. Naturalism, the way it has come to be defined today, excludes any and all spiritual forces or causes. God is eliminated from any explanation of the universe by definition. According to Naturalism, if you say that God created the world you are being unscientific and by implication irrational and superstitious. This is the central argument used to justify the exclusion of any alternative to the teaching of evolution in our classrooms. This is primarily a political strategy rather than an attempt to promote science and scientific education. And this brings us to Gov. Perry's comments about global warming and the teaching of evolution.

We live in an era in which science has been politicized, because science is used to support ideological (political) agendas. Evolution is the first and foremost example of this phenomena. A naturalistic explanation of the world in which we live is impossible without the theory of evolution. I wondered for years why evolution was so irrationally defended, why so many scientists would ignore or deny the weaknesses in the theory and the lack of any direct evidence of the types of macroevolutionary change that should be crucial to establish the theory. Instead they rely upon hypothetical explanations, and establishing the cause (evolution) by observing its effects (geological column, fosil record, and DNA patterns). But none of these things come close to answering the crucial questions that would normally be required of a scientific theory. We have no realistic explanation for most, if not all, of the great mysteries of the origin of life, of DNA, or of the internal structure of the cell. So why is evolution so fiercely defended? It is because without evolution the only option is God and creation. And, more importantly, without evolution there is no justification for imposing a purely secular ideology upon society.

This brings us back to Bertrand Russell, and the fact that this is not a "so what" question, this goes to the core of who we are as human beings. And, I am not arguing that we should adopt a religious view of reality in order to "feel good" about ourselves and our place in the world. I do not want us to believe in fairy tales. My belief in God is based in both reason and experience. I have a bachelor's degree in physics and my scientific education has only strengthened my conviction that a personal creator God is the only reasonable explanation for the clear evidence of design in nature. I am convinced, based on probability theory and other relevant facts, that all the billions of creatures, organs, and organisms on earth could not have developed by a purely accidental process. In my book, I cite the example given by David Attenborough of the development of flight in insects. But flight would require at least three things to all occur at the same time: wings (with proper weight, shape, and strucure), fatigue resistant muscles, and pattern of wing movement that provided lift and didn't just fan the air. I know, evolutionists claim all these things developed slowly over thousands of years. But it seems hard to imagine how all those crucial elements could have developed gradually and added to the survival capability of the creatures involved.

Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most well known biologists of our time, wrote a book in which he attempted to deal with the inordinate probability of life arising by accident. His point was that, as low as the probability is for the accidental development of life, earth "won the lottery." His argument would be valid if the origin of life and evolution were a single event, and in this single instance we got incredibly lucky. However, we must account for billions of events that are restrained by levels of probability so low they each make the odds of winning the powerball look like a sure thing. In other words, evolution requires that we get "lucky" not just once but billions of times.

My career has also taken me into the realm of theology and philosophy, and here I find God the only reasonable explanation for human personality and conscience. Naturalism is, of necessity, reductionistic. It must reduce everything to chemical processes and stimulus-response mechanisms. But this leaves no room for the personal and there is nothing more obvious to human observation than that we are personal beings. All attempts to see human beings as machines to be programmed or animals to be trained has rightly been rejected as de-humanizing. A major part of the counter-culture of the 60's was a rejection of this mechanistic and reductionistic view of mankind. For this reason I am convinced that the only rational explanation for human nature is that we are the creation of a personal God.

Finally, I became a Christian in my sophomore year in college. I had a personally undeniable conversion experience. In all the years since, my belief has only been strengthened by the answers to prayer and the ways that God has made Himself known to me. And, I am not alone in my experience. As a teacher in a Christian college, I have heard the stories and seen the fruit of God's work in hundreds of people's lives. It is the undeniable reality of His presence in the world that accounts for the fact that the vast majority of Americans believe in a personal God.

The bottom line is that we must acknowledge that the enlightenment picture of reality is incorrect. Part of the reason we can assume it is not true is that it must operate in denial and intimidation in order to maintain its dominance of Western society. Further, secularism doesn't work. I am not calling for a theocracy or imposing religious education on our kids. What I am asking for is the simple common sense approach taken by American society prior to the 1960's and an end to the war against Christianity being waged in the name of secularism. Our nation was founded in the pursuit of both faith and freedom, what we have proven in our 200 years of existence is that the two are related. If we would continue to be a free people we must leave room for faith.

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