The cultural smokescreen which obscures God.
Like fish who do not realize they are swimming in water, we can easily fail to perceive the extent to which culture shapes, and often distorts, our perception of the world. In our culture, male babies wear blue, and female babies wear pink. And typically, only women wear skirts. But is there something intrinsically feminine about skirts, or the color pink? No, there isn’t. In traditional Scottish culture, for example, men commonly wore skirts known as kilts. The idea that skirts and the color pink are feminine is something which our culture invented, but which has no intrinsic reason for being true. Conversely, giving birth is intrinsically feminine.
A cultural construct is something which is arbitrarily determined by culture, but which doesn’t have any intrinsic or logical reason for being true. And the common view that belief in God is “religious,” whereas atheism and agnosticism are “non-religious” and “scientific” is a groundless cultural construct…every bit as much as the stance that pink is a feminine color.
Cultural definitions of religion are a smokescreen which obscures God.
Labeling theism “religious” is frequently used as an excuse to summarily dismiss theistic arguments without any logical consideration, just a wave of the hand. In addition to being a smokescreen in which to conceal the truth, this is particularly nonsensical and illogical. And, considering the difficulty of logically defining exactly what the term religion means, the meaning of a statement such as, “I am not religious” is unclear. Dean Overman, a Templeton Scholar from Oxford University writes:
Defining what one means by the term “religion” is not an easy task. Keith Ward, former Regius Professor of Divinity and head of the theology department at Oxford University, wrote a highly acclaimed five-volume series on comparative religions. In one of his recent books, The Case for Religion, he notes that defining the term “religion” is not a simple undertaking:
“Many colleges in America and Europe have courses on ‘Religion.’ These courses usually start with a lecture entitled ‘What is Religion?’ After running through a few dozen definitions, the lecturer almost invariably concludes that nobody knows what religion is, or is even sure that there is such a thing. The course continues to be called courses on religion, however, because that sounds better than having a course entitled, “I do not know what I am talking about.”
There is no plausible benchmark for deciding when one can or cannot include a given set of beliefs as a religion.
For example, some may try to define religion as “belief systems which include the existence of God.” But this definition would exclude religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism (a religion from ancient India), and certain forms of Satanism, etc. None of these belief systems have any comment on the existence or non-existence of God. Atheists and agnostics can therefore only portray themselves as “not religious” by first defining religion in theistic terms. Such a definition of religion certainly has deep roots in our culture, but it is entirely arbitrary and meaningless. In the context of discussing so-called “religious violence,” religious scholar William T. Cavanaugh notes how the category known as religion is an ultimately meaningless invention of western culture, in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:
“What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history? One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of human history. …The problem is that there was no category of religion separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then it was primarily in the West. What meaning could we give to either the claim that Roman religion is to blame for the imperialist violence of ancient Rome, or the claim that it is Roman politics and not Roman religion that is to blame? Either claim would be nonsensical, because there was no neat division between religion and politics.”
“It is not simply that religion and politics were jumbled together until the modern West got them properly sorted out. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark book, The Meaning and End of Religion, religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics, and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”
“…The first conclusion is that there is no trans-historical or trans-cultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority. The second conclusion is that the attempt to say that there is a trans-historical and trans-cultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it is developed in the West.”
Cultural definitions of science are a smokescreen.
Like religion, science is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down. As I discuss in Is Belief in God Unscientific?, despite the immense prestige which our culture affords to science, nobody has been able to successfully demarcate (or separate) science from non-science and pseudo-science. This is what is known as “the demarcation problem in science.” As the Wikipedia post for the Demarcation Problem discusses, “The debate continues after over two millennia of dialogue among philosophers of science and scientists in various fields.” For example, some have tried to use testability as the criterion which separates science from non-science or pseudo-science: If a hypothesis cannot be tested—so the argument goes—then it is not science. But if testability is the criterion which demarcates science from pseudo-science, then Darwinian evolution would have to be labelled pseudo-science, since it cannot be tested. Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Henry Gee (Senior Editor of Nature, the most prestigious science journal) eloquently commented on how Darwinian evolution is not testable, in 1999:
“No fossil is buried with its birth certificate. That, and the scarcity of fossils, means that it is effectively impossible to link fossils into chains of cause and effect in any valid way…To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”
Considering the inability of anyone to determine exactly what constitutes science, one can only label theism “unscientific” by first arbitrarily defining science in terms which rule out theism. This is circular reasoning in the purest sense, but this is exactly what the atheistic cultural elites have been diligently trying to do. Unfortunately, much of the general public has been successfully duped. In truth, judging theism to be “unscientific” and “religious” is every bit as much a groundless cultural construct as the idea that skirts are a feminine clothing item. (Please read philosopher of science Larry Laudan’s influential essay The Demise of the Demarcation Problem for a more in-depth exploration of the demarcation problem in science).
Absolutely everyone has a personal philosophy, whether or not the term religion is applied.
Everyone has a personal philosophy (or worldview) which includes a set of beliefs, whether or not one realizes it, and whether or not one chooses to apply the term religion to this personal philosophy. Even the most hardened atheist needs an interpretive lens, through which to view the world, which is comprised of a set of beliefs. And, despite what atheists would have you believe, every disbelief or skeptical stance is really just an alternate belief. For example, one can only disbelieve that life is the result of an intelligent cause from the vantage point of belief that life is the result of unintelligent causes. There is simply no way around this. As a Christian, I am a deeply skeptical non-believer in atheist claims that life resulted from unintelligent natural processes, for reasons which I describe in The Case for God is Not a Case of the God of the Gaps and Why Life Could Not Have Emerged Without God.
A worldview is an explanatory framework which attempts to explain the various aspects of our reality. And a worldview is ultimately a stance with regards to what philosophers refer to as “prime reality,” which can be defined as the something from which everything else comes. The worldview which currently dominates modern academia, known as scientific materialism, suggests that matter is the prime reality, and therefore, everything which exists is really just an arrangement of matter, or stuff. Perhaps nobody better expressed the scientific materialist worldview better than the atheist biologist Francis Crick, when he wrote:
“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
But, despite being immensely fashionable and culturally dominant, scientific materialism is quite transparently false. In the context of responding to Crick’s above stance, Frank Turek comments on the self-refuting nature of scientific materialism:
Perhaps Crick would have seen [the] problem if he had applied his hypothesis to his own work. Imagine if Dr. Crick had written this: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that my scientific conclusions that I write in this book are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Nancy Pearcey further expounds on the self-refuting nature of scientific materialism in Finding Truth:
The sheer act of asserting materialism contradicts itself. If I say, “Everything is material,” is that statement material? Is it merely a series of sound waves? If I write out the statement, is it nothing but marks on a piece of paper? Of course not. The statement has a linguistic meaning. It has logical properties. It has a social function (communicating to others)—all of which transcend the material dimension. Ironically, materialism cannot even be stated without refuting itself.
Because humans are whole and integrated beings, we should expect our thoughts to be accompanied by physical events in the brain. But if we reduce thought processes to brain processes, the result is a logical contradiction.
The stark differences between mental states and physical states make it very difficult to philosophically argue that matter is the something from which everything else comes (prime reality). Mental states are inner, private, and can only be owned by first-person subjects. But there is nothing first-person or private about a material state such as a molecule or a nerve cell. As philosopher J.P. Moreland points out, “Mental states fail to have crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location, being composed of parts) that characterize physical states and, in general, cannot be described using physical language (my thoughts have no physical dimensions, no physical location, and aren’t made of simpler building blocks).” If nothing exists except for matter, then why is there such thing as a first-person private experience like a feeling of joy or sorrow?
So, if matter is not the something from which everything else comes (prime reality), then what is? To answer this question, one needs to consider the classical philosophical axiom that a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give. In other words, the cause of conscious, personal, and rational beings such as ourselves must, by necessity, contain the features of consciousness, personhood, and reason, etc. Edwar Feser eloquently explains in The Last Superstition:
…The cause of a fire might itself be on fire, as when a torch is used to start a brushfire, or it may instead have the power to produce fire, as a cigarette lighter has even when it is not being used.
The traditional way of making this distinction is to say that a cause has the feature that it generates in the effect “formally” in the first sort of case (e.g. when both the cause and the effect are on fire) and “eminently” in the second sort of case (e.g. when the cause is not itself on fire, but has an inherent power to produce fire). If a cause didn’t contain all the features of its effect either formally or eminently, there would be no way to account for how the effect came about in just the way it did. Again, a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give.
Material things such as the molecules and nerve cells which Francis Crick references above do not contain (either formally or eminently) many of the features we as humans possess…such as consciousness, intelligence, personhood, reason, morality, love, etc. Keith Ward, a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, makes the same point as Feser in his book Doubting Dawkins: Why There Almost Certainly is a God.
“…There is force in the classical philosophical axiom that, for a truly explanatory cause to be intelligible, it must contain its effects potentially in itself. As the classical philosophers put it, the cause must contain more reality than its effects.”
The implication of the philosophical axiom cited by Feser and Ward is that the cause of conscious, intelligent, and personal beings such as ourselves must necessarily have the effects of consciousness, intelligence and personhood contained potentially in itself. A cigarette lighter contains the effect of fire potentially in itself (even when not being used), but inanimate material things such as atoms and rocks do not contain the effects of consciousness, intelligence, or personhood potentially in themselves. This is why the only logical option is to cite a conscious, personal, and intelligent cause (read: God) for conscious, personal, and intelligent agents such as ourselves.
Although the smokescreen which our culture has created makes it difficult for many to perceive, determining prime reality to be a conscious, personal, and intelligent being (read: God) makes the most sense. As Sir Isaac Newton put it in Principia Mathematica, which is widely regarded to be the most important scientific work of all time:
“Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being, necessarily existing.”
Theism is the explanatory framework which best makes sense of our reality.
Please consider the following reasons why theism is the most coherent explanatory framework:
1) Biology: As I discuss in The Case for God is not a Case of the God of the Gaps, the genetic code uses symbolic representation in a very similar manner to a human language or a computer language. This is no metaphor or figure of speech. An entire an entire school of thought in biology called biosemiotics considers language to be a primary lens through which living things must be understood. And language is by necessity the product of an intelligent agent because what a symbol serves to represent is an arbitrary mental decision. For example, the letters C-A-T serve as a symbolic representation of a furry animal that purrs and meows only because the intelligent agents who created the English language arbitrarily assigned this meaning to this set of symbols. There is no physical or chemical relationship between these symbols and what they serve to represent, only a mental relationship. In the primary text on the application of algorithmic information theory to the question of the origin of life, titled Information Theory, Evolution, and The Origin of Life, physicist and information scientist Hubert Yockey explains how many of the principles of human language are also applicable to the genetic code, the language of life:
“Information, transcription, translation, code, redundancy, synonymous, messenger, editing, and proofreading are all appropriate terms in biology. They take their meaning from information theory (Shannon, 1948) and are not synonyms, metaphors, or analogies.”
Please read Rutgers University professor Sungchul Ji’s excellent paper The Linguistics of DNA: Words, Sentences, Grammar, Phonetics, and Semantics to explore this subject more thoroughly.
2) Physics: An immaterial conscious mind is required to explain the famous observer effect in physics. The observer effect refers to the conclusion of modern physics that, prior to observation by a conscious observer, particles exist only in an immaterial form known as a possibility wave (or probability wave). It is only after an observation is made by a conscious observer that these possibilities “collapse into actuality,” thereby taking on material form. Please read Johns Hopkins University physicist Richard Conn Henry’s article The Mental Universe, and University of California, Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp’s book Mindful Universe for a more thorough exploration of this subject. Physicist Richard Conn Henry explains how people with atheistic leanings recoil at the clear theistic implications of modern physics :
“Why do people cling with such ferocity to belief in a mind-independent reality? It is surely because if there is no such reality, then ultimately (as far as we can know) mind alone exists. And if mind is not a product of real matter, but rather is the creator of the illusion of material reality (which has, in fact, despite the materialists, been known to be the case since the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925), then a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism.” [“Solipsism” is defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.”]
3) Near-death: Many, many people have actually met God, and had conversations with Him during what are known as near-death experiences. As I discuss in Has Anyone Ever Met God and Returned to Tell About It?:
An entire field of research has sprung up to analyze this phenomenon. Researchers from the fields of medicine and psychology have come together to form the International Association of Near- Death Studies (IANDS, website iands.org) and the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF, website: nderf.org).
In 2005, IANDS released The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences to summarize the conclusions of 30 years of research in this field. Some of the revelations featured in this book (which appear below) should come as a wake-up call to those inclined to doubt the existence of the Deity:
“NDErs often believe that they have survived because God willed it and had a divine purpose in bringing them back…They have experienced the love of God and been changed by it (Grosso 1981). Many have come face-to-face with a personal God with whom they continue to maintain a loving relationship.”
“…for most the result appears to be a spiritual awakening. The NDE often brings with it a spiritual certainty and intense desire to conform one’s life to divine will. The new relationship with what is often a personal God becomes central to the NDErs’ lives.”
In part because of the sheer volume of NDE accounts, it has become a phenomenon that is difficult to ignore. And, as Patrick Glynn notes in his book God: The Evidence, “The majority of researchers who have investigated the phenomenon, generally professionals with medical, psychological, or other scientific training—many of whom started out as skeptics—have concluded that these experiences are authentic.”