On the Biologos forum on September 20th, a man named Nathan posted an eloquent and very moving cry for help. He confessed that he was a Christian who was undergoing a crisis of faith, and that he had been moved to doubt the religion he had grown up with after confronting a number of new scientific truths. His heartfelt essay led to many responses from Biologos commenters, and he answered most of them with humble and grateful spirit. The thread, called Navigating Uncertainty, can be found here.
I first saw this thread on October 3rd and decided to add my own words of encouragement, because I felt that as a former atheist, scientist, and now committed Christian, I might be able to offer a slightly different perspective from some of the other commenters. Yesterday, Brad Kramer, the moderator of the Biologos forum, excerpted some of the comments (including one of mine) and reposted them in a blog post about this thread in order to illustrate the kind of conversation that Biologos can stimulate, and to provide an example of Christian love and caring that is part of their mission, especially as related to the intersection of science and faith. That excerpt, along with Brad’s introductory comments, can be found here.
I feel honored that one of my own comments was chosen to be part of this brief synopsis, but I would encourage readers to look at the entire conversation, since so many wonderful witnesses to God’s grace and the power of Christian love are evident in it.
I have decided to repost here (with minor edits) the three major comments that I have made on this thread (so far), since I think together they paint a fairly clear picture of my thoughts on how we can deal with the pressure from scientific knowledge without losing our faith. The sections in italics explain how these posts relate to responses from Nathan.
So many others have posted such wonderful comments that I am not sure that a latecomer to this like me has much to offer. But perhaps my own perspective might be useful. I was raised in a militant atheist family, became a scientist, and remained an atheist or agnostic until well into adulthood. I was only baptized into the Christian faith 4 years ago (at a pretty advanced age). I certainly understand all too well the seduction of naturalism, with its logic, explanatory power, and reasonable sounding answers for all questions. But what turned me in the direction of God was my slowly growing awareness that those answers were not actually very persuasive in all of the areas that I felt to be important. And oftentimes, I found that the answers by some of the people you mention, like Dennett and Dawkins, were not actually valid scientifically.
With time, once my mind was opened, I was called by Christ, and my life changed immeasurably for the better. The fog of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and valuelessness dissipated, and I was left seeing both the scientific reality of this world (which I have never for a moment doubted) and the glory of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection as mutually supportive and complementary realities.
Of course all phenomena have natural explanations. Nature is God’s creation. But the more we learn about nature and life (I am a biologist), the more we see how immensely complex and difficult to understand it is. And of course, the same is true of the nature of God. But Christ was real, He came to us in the form of a simple man: a carpenter, not a king. A man who taught us and died for us.
I know little of theology, and I can’t tell you much about the Bible. Like many here, I believe the Bible is inerrant, once we learn how to interpret its message. Adam and Eve could have easily been real people without being the biological ancestors of all humans. And we know that the story of the fall is true, since we are all demonstrably sinners. That is what counts, and the rest are details. We needed and need salvation, and Christ offers that.
As for consciousness, please don’t take the naysayers literally. Consciousness is both real and beyond explanation. All of the claims you are seeing that neuroscience has found this or that are highly exaggerated and need to be taken with many grains of salt. Scientism is a scientifically failed philosophy that cannot replace, explain or make sense of love, spirit, humor, music, emotion, or meaning.
As for doubt, all have faced it. Don’t be afraid of it. Atheists like to say “Why don’t you test your faith and see if it’s true. Pray for something and see if you get it”. And they usually include an object of the prayer like a million dollars, or a miracle cure, or a good grade. But the test works if we pray for a peaceful soul, or for enlightenment, or just to get through the night. Does this prove God? No. There is no proof. And we will all learn the truth soon enough. But for now, I can rely on the evidence of my mind, the evidence of my heart, my knowledge of the reality of love, and worship God with complete certainty in my salvation. Peace of Christ to you on this World Communion Day.
Nathan answered this with more specifics about how some scientific knowledge in areas like neuroscience had weakened his faith, and asked me to expand on my previous comment about not taking all of the anti-theistic scientific arguments too seriously.
Thanks for your kind words. I fully understand your concern, and why you feel the way you do about the “nothing buttery” explanations of atheists (anti-theists is a better term) who use neuroscience in a clear agenda to destroy the concept of God or spirituality. I am a biochemist, not a neuroscientist – my expertise is in molecular biology, genetics, and I am now working in systems biology. I have had decades of experience reading and writing scientific papers, and I can tell the difference between a valid scientific result and a philosophical claim deriving from that result.
From everything I have read, including the work of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett on consciousness and free will, I see nothing that “explains” away either as illusions or programming. The attempt to discredit religious feelings as nothing more than a neurological reflex has become a subfield of neuroscientific research, which is both a pity, and a sure sign that there is a strong agenda behind this work.
Let’s take an example. I am sure you have seen very impressive-seeming experiments that show that when someone is having a religious or spiritual experience, certain areas of the brain light up with neuronal activity. Does that show that such experiences are a mirage, “only” a bunch of neurons firing that give you the illusion of Christ speaking to you? I don’t think so. What it shows is that if Jesus Christ does in fact speak to me, and I am filled with the Holy Spirit, I have a number of reactions, including the stimulation of some specific brain areas. In this case one cannot identify the cause and effect. And that remains true, even if the brain stimulation precedes the feeling of the experience, since there are time delays in neurological processing that make conclusions based on timing impossible. I will look for some links to share.
Dennett’s solution to the hard problem of consciousness is that it’s an “illusion”. But Dennett has also said (not often quoted) that this does not mean that consciousness is not real. When he says illusion, he means something that is quite difficult to define. This is in fact is not that different from saying “immaterial”, something with which we can agree.
So, be skeptical. There are a lot of people like Sam Harris (who I have no respect for as a scientist) and Lawrence Krauss (who verges on the irrational when he defends atheism so passionately) who will explain to you that everything is just a meaningless result of scientific laws, but they are wrong. Even the scientific laws they proclaim so loudly actually point in the other direction. Toward purpose, design, toward an underlying fundamental Will, ultimately to a Creator, and to us, meaning you, Nathan, and I, as majestic, beloved creations of God.
Nathan then asked me “You mentioned you only became a believer later in life. If you don’t mind me asking, how late? How did you step out of materialism? What kind of church are you involved with now?” My answer, posted here, was also included in Brad Kramer’s Biologos Blog post about the conversation.
Happy to answer you, Nathan. I turned slowly from atheism to agnosticism in my 30s and 40s. What happened was I saw that pure materialism didn’t work in real life (where does art and laughter come from), but mostly I found that it didn’t work in science either. But religion was not something I could embrace. I was born wearing those lenses you speak of. But I became more and more open to the idea of God, and slowly God began calling me. Very faintly at first. I won’t bore you with too many details. Around 15 years ago (in my mid 50s) I began to go to Churches on occasion. I liked what I found there. Goodness, love, peace. None of the horrors I had associated with religion. And then finally only a few years ago, Christ called me directly. I was baptized 4 years ago (in my mid 60s) and joined a United Methodist Church, where I am now the lay leader, and very active. I have preached the Gospel, and been welcomed into the body of Christ. For me all of this is nothing short of a miracle.
I too sometimes will find myself thinking, “it’s all so beautiful, but is it real?” Could a man have truly been raised from the dead? If Heaven is real, where is it? And so on. The questions I used to ask people who tried to convert me in the old days. When those questions come to me now, I take a walk. I look at the trees and the people I pass. There is no proof that God exists. And yes, that woman smiling at her baby might be simply acting out the evolutionary imperative to care for her child in order to pass on her genes. I am a trained biologist, and I fully endorse and support the idea of evolution, which I believe is God’s tool for creation of life in all its splendor, drama and diversity. But I will never think for a moment that the joy in that woman’s eyes, the smile that comes to my face at seeing the baby laugh, and all the other wonders I find around me, are not much more than selfish genes doing their thing. If you pursue pure materialism far enough, it becomes depressing, boring, and not very convincing.
I believe the Holy Spirit is everywhere, but sometimes hard to hear or find. In those times it’s better to stop thinking and debating and just reach out and be touched.
Yes, we do a lot of arguing and debating here on Biologos (and elsewhere). Not because we are trying to convince anyone that our version of the truth is right, and they are idiots for not agreeing. But because this work we are doing, trying to see how our new knowledge of God’s world of nature, His Book of Works, can be reconciled with His Word in Scripture, is so very important, and most of us feel pretty passionate about the whole thing. That is not an easy task; it is in fact very difficult, and nobody knows the answers. Yet. But the point is not to give up if there are difficulties. That is not what God wants.
I am convinced that it is our (all of us) mission to work toward the truth, not to proclaim it. To take as many steps as we can toward finding how our science and our theology can be improved by each other, and ultimately learn all we can about the truth of the natural universe and God’s purpose for us, individually and as a species.
Have courage. Do not despair. Faith, hope and love always win, even when it seems like this time they won’t. In the end they do.