Life without God Is Weird

I think logic and argument can suggest God. I have personally benefited from apologists like William Lane Craig, who do this well.

Of course, this is not the only way to suggest God. It’s possible to make God plausible, not as the conclusion of a thread of reasoning, but as the premise of human experience. This approach says, in effect, “if God doesn’t exist, so much of life—so much of what we simply assume everyday in the way we function—becomes mysterious and inexplicable.”

Such a strategy is often rationally avoidable. But that doesn’t mean it’s less effective in real life. In fact, in our cultural setting, many of the lonely, transcendence-starved, quietly despairing people around us may resonate with aesthetic and existential considerations more than a logical case. Quite often the sheer beauty of the gospel is its most powerful apologetic. That is why I go back to C. S. Lewis’s fiction again and again. He speaks to the imagination powerfully.

Quite often the sheer beauty of the gospel is its most powerful apologetic.

Here are three aspects of human life and society that are somewhat out of place—homesick, we might say—within the confines of a naturalistic worldview. They don’t prove God, but they’re just kind of weird without him.

1. Thought

If our brains are simply the epiphenomenal byproduct of a naturalistic, evolutionary process, then thought becomes something of an oddity. In naturalism, our brains function as they do because of the winnowing effect of unimaginable eons of natural selection. Passing on our genes has determined everything. So can we trust our use of reason—or any of our knowledge? More basically, what exactly is thought? How is it generated from strictly physical processes?

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the complexity of this question. It’s a perennial challenge of philosophy. Consider the issue of consciousness, for instance. Thomas Nagel, who happens to be skeptical about God’s existence, thinks human consciousness is not reducible to strictly material process. In his excellent introduction to philosophy, he admits:

I myself believe that this inner aspect of pain and other conscious experiences cannot be adequately analyzed in terms of any system of causal relations to physical stimuli, however complicated. There seem to me two very different kinds of things going on in the world: the things that belong to physical reality, which many different people can observe from the outside, and those other things that belong to mental reality, which each of us experiences from the inside in his own case.

This whole idea of a “mental reality,” distinct from the physical one, is curious. Why should the physical world generate this separate, mental realm?

This whole idea of a ‘mental reality’ is curious. Why should the physical world generate this separate, mental realm?

Take, for example, math. We tend to think of math as a strictly logical, self-explanatory phenomenon. But when you think about it, math is highly mysterious. Why should it be the case that 2 + 3 = 5 always and everywhere? The physical world is interdependent and relative—even time and space are interwoven, as Einstein showed. But the world of numbers is fixed and universal and binding. So where did it come from?

Here’s a way to grasp the problem: If the entire universe collapsed into non-being, would it still be that 2 + 3 = 5? Most people say yes. But if the universe is all there is, what gives these numbers their stability? Why does the mental realm have permanence if the material realm is in flux? What is this intellectual world that rises up all around us, like an invisible castle—and how did it get here?

Without God, thought seems out of place.

2. Choice

Choice is another oddity within naturalism. If the universe is a closed system of cause and effect, then ultimately everything that happens has a prior material cause—like one pool ball hitting another.

So, if we are strictly material entities (albeit highly complex ones), where would free will come from? We make choices with our brains, and our brains are physical objects, alongside the whole panoply of other physical objects in the universe, from stars to sponges to sauerkraut. What would make our choices something other than the result of an extremely complicated series of previous material events—trillions of pool balls?

If reductive physicalism is the whole show, in what sense can our actions be objectively good or evil?

In fact, the more we understand neuroscience, the more see how tightly our mental life is correlated with the physicality of our brains. Consider the case of Phineas Gage, who worked in railroad construction in the 19th century. He had an unfortunate accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, up through the left frontal lobe. But he survived and slowly recovered. Unfortunately, his personality changed after the accident. (Basically, he became not so nice.) Lots of other instances like this have been documented, in which the physical brain exerts a massive influence on the sum of our mental life. This raises the question: Is mind ultimately reducible to matter? If so, is our consciousness of making responsible decisions illusory? Is free will possible?

Even more troubling, what about our moral decision-making? If reductive physicalism is the whole show, in what sense can our actions be objectively good or evil?

Without God, choice seems out of place.

3. Hope

Hope is essential to human life. As the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” And tragically, the opposite is true. Hopelessness is unlivable. Recent headlines have sadly reminded us what we do when we run out of hope.

The power of hope is dramatized poignantly in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, and in particular its portrayal of Andy Dufresne’s struggle to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s hope that determines whether life is worth living: either “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

He chooses to live. And in the context of this choice, he says, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing; and no good thing ever dies.”

But can a naturalist agree with Andy Dufresne? I cannot see how. In a naturalistic philosophy, hope does die. Just wait long enough, and there’s no one around to do any hoping. In fact, not only will every individual person die, but the entire universe will eventually wind down into a heat death, and thus every single achievement of every single person will also be swallowed up and forgotten forever.

It’s a curious thing that a world ultimately devoid of hope should produce creatures who cannot function without it.

Why do we hate and fear this prospect of everything winding down so much? Why does it seem so unnatural? Sadness at death is understandable on the grounds of naturalism. But the intensity of our fear of death is curious. Why do we long for ultimate meaning, for abiding happiness, for connection to something transcendent?

It’s a curious thing that a world ultimately devoid of hope should produce creatures who cannot function without it.

Indeed, without God, hope seems out of place.

Someone Whispering  

C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” In other words, not all of God’s speech is at the same volume. The clarity and force of divine revelation varies.

Clues of God in our mental, volitional, and emotional life are, as I see it, in the “whisper” register. These are not the most obvious or undeniable places to find God. (For those, I personally go back to the Big Bang, the resurrection of Jesus, the lives of godly saints, and my own deep-seated, undeniable sense of God in my heart and conscience.)

Nonetheless, that our world has produced creatures who think, choose, and hope is, within a naturalistic framework, a curious turns of events. If we listen carefully, we might hear Someone whispering.