The Rational God
I wrote Fringe-ology, in great part, to help push back against the new atheist movement, which contributed a new virulence to the debate over religious belief. I myself had some common ground with what they had to say: Given the contradictions in any religious text, not to mention obvious historical errors, I find it impossible to subscribe to any particular religion as the inerrant last word on God and man. But I also saw a number of problems with the new atheists in general: The ridicule they direct at religious believers strikes me as a great way to lend a new stridency to an already overwrought debate. More importantly, however, I also believe they overreach by directing so many of their broadsides against the idea of any creator at all.
On this score, I felt especially keen criticize their indiscriminate use of the word “irrational.”
“It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the majority of atheists I know disguise their atheism behind a pious façade,” writes Dawkins, in The God Delusion. “They do not believe in anything supernatural themselves, but retain a vague soft spot for irrational belief.”
Belief in God may prove wrong. But it isn’t irrational: 1. without the faculty of reason; deprived of reason. 2. without or deprived of normal mental clarity or sound judgment. 3. not in accordance with reason; utterly illogical.
Belief in God is an understandable outgrowth of the amount of mystery still surrounding our existence. Just consider one of the most vexing questions in philosophy: Why is there something rather than nothing?
In other words, even setting aside any controversy over how humanity, specifically, came into being (and yes, I hold evolution to be true), why is there a universe? How did anything at all, from the tiniest dot of matter, come into existence?
The problem for the materialist atheist point of view should be obvious: Any cause for the universe should be physical. But, well, where did anything physical come from in the first place? The Big Bang required only a modicum of matter. But how did that matter to come into being? And additionally, what caused the laws that governed the explosion of so little into a universe so vast?
Krauss is a physicist and leading figure in the atheist movement. He argues, essentially, that what physicists define as empty space qualifies as “nothing.” But he himself admits, in this NPR interview, that what physicists call “nothing” is, well, “something,” even if he avoids using that word: “Empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence in a time scale so short that you can’t even measure them.”
He further states: “most of the energy of the universe actually resides in empty space,” and so what physicists take to be empty space and nothing is actually a “stew” of particles winking in and out of existence.
His book is a hit, another entry in the fast-growing canon of new atheist lit. But it is a nonstarter among philosophers, who retort that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” is nonsensical.
Holt’s book stays on firmer ground because he accepts the mystery at the heart of the question and its perhaps unanswerable nature. One of my favorite moments in Holt’s book is when he meets with the Russian physicist Andrei Linde, who developed a theory that predicted the exact background radiation left over from the Big Bang.
Our universe started with “a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter,” Linde tells him. But Holt finds this unpersuasive. Why? Because the leap to an entire universe from so little matter is scientifically comprehensible, but the jump to any matter at all from nothing isn’t.
Holt has great fun playing with the question, and meets with an array of physicists and thinkers to try and solve this riddle. Some wave the question off, arguing that we’ll never get to a first cause and perhaps that first bit of matter was just there. But granting matter the ability to bring itself into existence isn’t really an answer. It certainly isn’t the last word on the subject. And so, the depth of the mystery is so great that it could—reasonably—give rise to the sorts of thoughts that give atheists the heebie jeebies.
In fact, the appearance of one-one thousandth of a gram of matter out of nothing sounds like a supernatural event—certainly, a paranormal one, if we take a standard dictionary definition of the word: of or pertaining to events or perceptions occurring without scientific explanation.
I know. I’ve opened myself up to the charge that I am merely invoking a “God of the Gaps” argument. But the gap between nothing and something is so vast it could represent a God-sized hole.
*For a quick last couple of thoughts, keep reading.