The Atheist’s Folly

A few years ago I read a book by Alan Lightman titled Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. The entire book is an atheist’s musings on the big questions of life: God, Origin, Purpose, Salvation, Destiny. One description of the book reads, “an exploration of the tension between our yearning for permanence and certainty versus modern scientific discoveries pointing to the impermanent and uncertain nature of the world.” That sentence perfectly captures Lightman’s major thesis – though we internally long for and must live as if there is some higher purpose, ultimately there is not. Ultimately, according to Lightman, the random collection of molecules that we call our “self” is all that there is. At the end of the day there is no higher purpose, no higher meaning, no transcendant moral principles. It is as atheist thinker Richard Dawkins once said, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

Christianity not only rejects Lightman and Dawkins’ view of the world. but also provides the very real foundation that is needed to account for the real world we live in. While writers like Allan Lightman and Richard Dawkins (who do not share identical views, but rather highly similar views) sound reasonable and scientific to the modern mind, they are in fact irrational and contradictory to God’s revealed Word.

Take the following quote as an example:

I believe that the “I” is an illusion. I believe that there is no I, no Self. In my view, and the view of many biologists, the powerful feeling of consciousness and Self is just a name we give to the mental sensation of a hundred billion neurons sending electrical and chemical impulses back and forth in our skulls… Mulling over these new ideas, “I” now consider “myself” a machine even more than before. I will admit that I’m not feeling cheerful after these ruminations… Here is the point I have finally attained. Since I cannot escape these sensations [the “I”], I might as well live in such a way as to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain. Accordingly, I will try to eat delicious food, try to support my family, try to create beautiful things, and try to help those less fortunate than myself, because those activities bring my pleasure…”

Searching For Stars on An Island In Maine. Alan Lightman.

The Illusion of “I”

Lightman is insistent that there is no real sense of “I.” “I” don’t exist in a legitimate way. For Lightman a human being is nothing more than a random collection of atoms that just so happened to spin in such a way as to create the illusion of a person with a will and a mind and emotions. When Lightman refers to himself as a “machine” he is ruminating on the idea that at our very base level our entire bodies and wills are simply extravagant tools used by proteins to replicate themselves. The “self” in a meaningful sense is non-existent. We are simply bags of space dust blowing through the cosmos with no purpose or direction. For Lightman this is the starting point of reality. Yet, almost as immediately as he states this irrational proposition he follows it up with the statement, “I’m not feeling cheerful after these ruminations…” It seems as if, at least according to Lightman’s worldview, there is some tragic evolutionary misfire that got written into our DNA that “desires” to exist as an individual. The sheer fact that Lightman wrote the book and feels the need to communicate what he believes to be truth, demonstrates his internal resistance to his own understanding of reality. After all — if there is no higher purpose, no real direction, no self, then there is truly no need for one bag of space dust to attempt to convince another bag of space dust of any particular set of ideas.

At this point, the Christian can confidently stand on the Word of God as revealing truth. Praise God that we are not simply bags of space dust. We are human beings, made in the image of God. As image bearers we are far more valuable than we could ever quite imagine. We have been created with an actual identity as an individual. Our personality, our unique characteristics, our stories, our place in God’s greater story, are all legitimately valuable, and will exist for eternity. Unlike Eastern religions that often claim that the “self” is lost in eternity as we merge together into one divine state of harmony, Christianity fully value the self. The resurrection to come will be a resurrection of selves with actual bodies and minds and wills.

Lightman desperately wants to value the self and live in a universe with real moral guidance. But in order to do so he must forsake his own understanding of reality and “embrace the illusion of the self” as he calls it. Oh what funny, sad, and silly floating bags of random space dust we are! But wait, there’s more…

A Worldview of Self Pleasure

There was a truly wicked spin to the quote from Lightman above. It may be difficult to see at first glance because it is blanketed in quite gentle language. But Lightman moves from diagnosing reality to moral reasoning. And when he makes this shift we quickly see the deep rooted evil of his worldview. He says, “Here is the point I have finally attained. Since I cannot escape these sensations [the “I”], I might as well live in such a way as to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain. Accordingly, I will try to eat delicious food, try to support my family, try to create beautiful things, and try to help those less fortunate than myself, because those activities bring my pleasure…” Here we have the ethics of ‘Space Dust Theology.’ Notice how the center of Lightman’s ethic is self-pleasure. He will eat delicious foods — why — because they bring him the illusion of pleasure. He will support his family — why — because this behavior brings him the illusion of pleasure. The list could go on, but the point is clear, the heartbeat of his ethics is ‘Self-pleasure.’

Allow us to take this ethical foundation to its appropriate ends. What do we say to the person who takes real pleasure in harming others, in stealing from others, in murdering others? If the foundation for ethics is ‘self-pleasure’ then we would not be able to say anything meaningful at all. We would only be able to look at the thief and say, “It appears that your sense of pleasure is different than mine, so be it.” Because the reality is that as soon as we import an objective, transcendant, line of morality that says, “Stealing is wrong even if you take pleasure in it. Murder is wrong even if you take pleasure in it. Harming another is wrong even if you take pleasure in it,” then we have abandoned Lightman’s ‘Space Dust’ premise, and have moved to the Christian premise.

Further, we must note how shameless this statement by Lightman is. Lightman writes this book from a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. This is a privileged place in society, that is not necessarily sinful, but at the very least is not common to all humanity. I’m curious what Lightman would say to the millions of people suffering from starvation and lack of water around the globe who quite literally do not have the opportunity to pursue the things that bring them the, “illusion of pleasure.” He would likely never say what he believes to be true, that their suffering is simply an “illusion.” After all, if there is no “self,” then “suffering” does not exist. He wouldn’t say that.

My guess is he would once again borrow from the Christian worldview, at least partially. He would validate that starvation is not ideal. He would validate that suffering is real and that it is not unnatural to desire to end suffering. He would validate that their lives have meaning and that it is a good thing for communities to come together to help others in their time of need, not simply because it brings the one helping a sense of “pleasure,” but because every life matters.

But it is right here where the Christian worldview far exceeds every other worldview. The Christian not only validates the legitimacy of suffering as a consequence of sin-filled world, but goes further by sacrificially stepping into suffering in order to serve others selflessly. At the heart of Christianity is a suffering servant messiah, Jesus Christ, who stepped into our brokenness with sacrificial love. The Biblical and historic place of Christians in society has always been true sacrificial love of others as an act of “self denial.” While “Self Pleasure” is the mark of Lightman’s ethics, “Self Denial” is the mark of a Christian. Consider John Calvin’s important words on self denial.

Moreover, we see by these words that self-denial has respect partly to men and partly (more especially) to God (sec. 8-10). For when Scripture enjoins us in regard to our fellow men, to prefer them in honor to ourselves, and sincerely labor to promote their advantages (Rom 12:10; Phi 2:3), [God] gives us commands that our mind is utterly incapable of obeying until its natural feelings are suppressed… Unless you leave off all thought of yourself and in a manner cease to be yourself, you will never accomplish it. How can you exhibit those works of charity that Paul describes unless you renounce yourself and become wholly devoted to other?… But Scripture, to conduct us to this, reminds us that whatever we obtain from the Lord is granted on the condition of our employing it for the common good of the church.

John Calvin on Self Denial. Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Christian – you can rest confidently that Christian worldview and understanding of reality is rock solid. Build your life on it, and live it out for the world to see. The stark difference between the Atheists vision of the world, and the Christian’s vision of the world is not simply a matter of heady intellectualism with scholars like Lightman and Dawkins, rather it works its way down into our heart and hands and lives. The Bible is the only sure footing for a reasonable rational ethic. Let’s be sure we’re living that ethic out in public sight.

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