Saturday, August 10, 2019
A Trip Around the Worldviews: Secularism
I recently watched an interview of Ravi Zacharias, a Christian philospher and apologist, and he made a distinction that I think is helpful to frame this post. He said that we should be egalitarian with respect to personhood, but not with respect to ideas. In other words, we should treat everyone with the equal respect that is due to a person with inherent worth, value and dignity, but we should not treat all ideas as being equally valid. Some ideas are better than others and some ideas have drastic consequences if they are pursued to their logical ends. While the modern definition of tolerance promotes embracing and celebrating all ideas equally, a traditional definition requires that there be significant differences in ideas over which to "tolerate" one another.
I hope that I am able to embody that spirit as I begin my trip around the worldviews, examining how major worldviews provide answers to life's big questions of origin, identity, morality, meaning, and destiny. While I will be providing my honest critique of different ideas, I hold no animosity to those who hold such positions and hope to be able to communicate my position with civility and generosity. If you happen to hold an opposing position, I would love to engage in respectful dialogue over these important issues.
With that disclaimer aside, our journey begins with an examination of secularism.
All worldview's are built upon a foundation of ideas and premises, and, if the worldview is going to be coherent, all of the answers to life's big questions must be consistent with that foundation. Secularism is built upon the foundation of atheism, materialism, and naturalism. While some secularists may not claim to be strict atheists, secularism requires that God be removed from the public square and that God has no legitimate impact on reality. Many secularists are not only openly atheists, but also openly anti-theist, as characterized by Harvard paleontologist Richard Lewontin's admission: "Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”1
Materialism and naturalism work hand in hand. Materialism is a philosophy that claims that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that all things are ultimately the result of material interactions. Naturalism is the philosophy that everything in the universe has a natural explanation and that supernatural explanations should be excluded and disregarded. To the secularist, a scientific method based on naturalism and materialism is the only reliable epistemology (way of knowing things), as summarized by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley: "Modern science must rule out special creation or divine guidance.”2 It is important to note that materialism and naturalism are philosophical presuppositions not scientific facts. Science itself can not prove that materialism and naturalism are true, so to claim that a scientific method based on those ideas is the only way of knowing anything is self-referential and incoherent.
Nonetheless, it is important to understand secularism's starting point of atheism, materialism and naturalism because secularism's answers to life's big questions must not contradict these presuppositions.
Origin - How did we get here?
According to secularism, we are either incredibly lucky or the result of brute necessity. Based on scientific discoveries within the last century, scientists have learned that the fundamental parameters of the universe are incredibly fine-tuned to allow for the existence of complex life. To give only one example, according to Leonard Susskind, a theoretical physicist at Stanford, "If the ratio between the electromagnetic force and gravity was altered more than 1 in 1040, the universe would have suffered a similar fate (would not exist). The nature of the universe (at the atomic level) could have been different, but even remarkably small differences would have been catastrophic to our existence.”3
Even if this evidence would seem to point to an intelligent designer, secularism can only offer naturalistic explanations. The most popular explanations are that the fundamental properties were finely-tuned due to necessity or that our universe is only one of an infinite number of universes, the multiverse, out of which at least one universe would certainly end up with the correct parameters to support life. While the multiverse is driven by philosophical assumptions, not evidence, the important thing is that the universe we observe has no purpose and no design, but is the result of blind, indifferent natural forces.
Life originated and evolved by the same basic principles – purposeless, unguided natural forces, despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the possibility of spontaneous generation and abiogenesis. Richard Lewontin admitted the scientific community holds onto a "tolerance" for "unsubstantiated just-so stories, because [they] have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”1 Our species, homo sapiens, is a newcomer to Earth, a highly evolved ape that traces its ancestry back to the very first single-celled organism to emerge from the primordial goop. Coherent answers to life’s other big questions must align with secularism’s account of humanity’s origin.
Identity – What does it mean to be human?
Do human beings have intrinsic worth and value that calls for each person to be treated with dignity and respect? Based on secularism’s initial premises and explanation of human origins, I see no way to rationally answer in the affirmative. Keep in mind, in the secular worldview, nothing exists beyond the material realm. Humans don’t have a spirit, soul, or even a mind. We are simply bundles of cells, biological machines with no more intrinsic value than any other organism. What makes humans any different than the chimps from with we allegedly evolved, or if we go further back, the fish and bacteria in our family tree? If we don’t protect “fish rights” and “bacteria rights,” what rational basis is there for protecting human rights?
This is the first point at which we see the incoherency of the secularist view. Thankfully, most secularists do live as if human beings have intrinsic value, though I would argue that this value is not consistently extended to all humans, particularly to those still in their mother’s womb. Secularists can treat others with dignity and respect, and they often do, but the problem is that the philosophical foundation of the worldview actually contradict such action. We should mind the lessons of history, from western slavery to the Holocaust to the Soviet death camps, to realize that the devaluing of human life brings tragic consequences.
Morality – How should we live?
Similar to the last section, I want to make it clear that secularists can live admirably moral and ethical lives, but the worldview does not provide the foundation necessary to support absolute moral obligations. To be consistent with its initial premises, the secular worldview must assert that morality is not absolute or objective, in other words, there is not any action that is truly right or wrong. Instead, morality is relative and subjective, depending either on shared cultural values or individual preferences. Consider the following quotes from well-known atheists.
“We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me…Pure practical reason even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.”4
“The whole nature of moral reasoning has such an immense configuration to it, that it is impossible to actually arrive at a rational defense of it apart from invoking a moral, personal first-cause.”5
“I cannot believe that I find my values are simply a matter of my personal taste and so I find my own views actually quite incredible and I do not know the solution.”6
Secularism does not provide a foundation for morality, leaving moral direction to the culture or the individual. This is a frightening game to play. If there truly is no objective standard of morality to which mankind can refer, what happens when an ill-bent regime rises to power and rewrites the rules? As the rock band King Crimson penned
Knowledge is a deadly friend
When no one sets the rules
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hand of fools7
Even more frightening, secularism removes the rational basis for assigning praise or blame to a person’s actions. In order to be consistent, I would claim that an atheistic and materialistic worldview requires determinism. If we rewound the history of the universe and hit replay, the exact same series of events would have occurred. If we reduce humans to matter, every action that we undertake and every thought that we have is ultimately the result of atoms colliding in our bodies. There is no mind or soul that could have chosen to act differently than it did.
The following video clip shows a conversation with YouTube atheists Cosmic Skeptic, Rationality Rules, and Matt Dillahaunty. Rationality Rules and Matt Dillahaunty want to hold a compatible view between determinism and moral accountability. In other words, they want to maintain that people ultimately do not have free will but can still be held accountable for their immoral actions. I think it is pretty obvious why one would want to hold onto the idea of moral accountability. However, Cosmic Skeptic interjects, “The fact of the matter is every part of my psychological state that exists right now, the chain of causation that caused that to occur, does trace back to inanimate matter, and that’s the point, so the only thing the compatibilist can do is make an arbitrary distinction between whether a chain of causation exists entirely inside of the brain or whether it just sort of comes from outside of the brain, and the likelihood is most all of them actually originate, if you go far back enough, outside of the brain… If that’s the case, then your psychological state is completely determined by things over which you had no control. To me that’s not making anything compatible… The reason why [compatibilists are] reluctant to accept that [free will] doesn’t exist is because of the fact that you have to do away with concepts of praise and blame.”8 If you would like to watch, the conversation on determinism starts at 44:30 and Cosmic Skeptic begins to explain why determinism is incompatible with moral praise and blame at 52:58.
I think that Cosmic Skeptic, who has over 276,000 YouTube subscribers, is the one who is being intellectually consistent. While his comments, particularly with a charming British accent, do not sound particularly insidious, consider the ramifications. You cannot rationally assign blame for moral misdeeds. The Hitlers and Stalins of history cannot ultimately be blamed for their heinous actions because they ultimately could not have done any differently. Ironically, in the days following this episode, Rationality Rules was assigned moral blame by the producers of this episode, The Atheists Community of Austin, for a video he had previously made raising concerns about transgender athletes competing with biological females.
Meaning – Why are we here?
Once again, someone can hold a secular worldview and lead a productive life in which they find personal satisfaction and meaning, but there is not any ultimate purpose that can be supported by this worldview. Bertrand Russell saw this clearly and asserted, “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.”9 To be sure, people can find purpose in their work, families, and hobbies, but this purpose is ultimately illusory.
Further devaluing humanity, Richard Dawkins claims, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA…This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”10 I would love to ask Professor Dawkins whether people who are unable to propagate their DNA or have passed that stage of life have any reason for living.
Destiny – What happens to us when we die?
When asked in a question and answer session what he would do if he was facing death without having any assurance of eternal life through faith in God, Neil deGrasse Tyson replied, “I would request that my body, in death, be buried, not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth so that flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna.”11 This position is consistent with the premises of secularism and holds a certain romantic appeal. However, a good follow up question would be, “What if you’re wrong?”
While I think there are much better reasons to believe in God, Pascal’s wager does present an interesting dilemma for the secularist. If I am wrong, I have met the secularist’s demand to find satisfaction in this life, and ultimately come to nothing. However, if the secularist is wrong, they have not met God’s demand for righteousness, and there is no going back.
In order to be coherent and consistent the secular worldview diminishes any intrinsic value in humanity, undermines an objective basis for moral obligations and accountability, and denies any ultimate purpose for living. Unfortunately, I fear that many don’t grasp the consequences of adopting an atheistic, materialistic, naturalistic worldview. Some stand behind one podium to deny the existence of God and then hop over to the other podium to morally condemn an action as being "truly wrong." In contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche fully understood the gravity of proclaiming that “God is dead,” as brilliantly evidenced in "The Parable of the Madman."
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”12
If you are reading this and hold to a secular worldview, please know that while I hold an opposing worldview, I sincerely care about you as a person, one who I believe is created in the image of God and endowed with great intrinsic value and worth. I would love the opportunity to further discuss life's big questions.
1) Richard Lewontin, "Billions and Billions of Demons." The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997
2) Julian Huxley, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (New York: Harper Brothers Publishers, 1942), 457
3) Quoted in J. Warner Wallace, God's Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015)
4) Kai Nielsen, "Why Should I Be Moral?" American Philosophical Quarterly, January, 1984
5) Quoted in Ravi Zacharias, "The Incoherence of Atheism." YouTube, September 15, 2014
6) Bertrand Russell, "Letter to the Observer." October 6, 1957
7) King Crimson, "Epitaph." A Young Person's Guide to King Crimson, 1976
8) "Atheist Experience 23.18 with Matt Dillahaunty, Cosmic Skeptic, & Rationality Rules." YouTube, April 28, 2019
9) Bertrand Russell, Free Man's Worship, 1903.
10) Richard Dawkins, "The Ultraviolet Garden." Lecture, 1991.
11) "Neil deGrasse Tyson - Flora and Fauna." YouTube, March 23, 2014
12) Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Parable of the Madman." 1882