If someone puts himself in the shoes of the atheist, the tenets of so many religions may seem like adult fairy tales—or maybe not even the “adult” type.
Over here, he finds the Hindus and Buddhists, telling us that after death we will undergo reincarnations dependent on our spiritual state or karma, until (for many Hindus) our soul attains a state of “enlightenment,” and is united with Brahmin/God; or (for many Buddhists) we finally attain release from all elements of selfhood (the cause of suffering) and merge with the All, in nirvana.
Those of us who have difficulty imagining our existence stripped of selfhood will find Buddhism strange and fanciful; and many will find it impossible to imagine a self taking on different bodies over and over again. Aristotle, emphasizing the unique unification of body and soul, criticized Plato’s theory of reincarnation as absurd—imagining that any old soul could be stuffed in any old body, taken at random.
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The Muslims tell us that our mission in life is to follow the instructions of the prophet Muhammad, and subordinate everyone and every religion to Islam, by force, if necessary; for which we may be rewarded in heaven with unending sensuous delights. But most of us in the Western world have trouble believing a warlord with a harem of 15 wives, involved in 27 battles and 38 raiding parties, and prone to violent retaliations, to be a “prophet” whom we could trust as speaking for God. We have been perhaps too brainwashed by the characteristics of the prophets of the Old Testament, who were models of asceticism and non-violence. Would it be rational to entrust our lives and hopes of ultimate salvation to someone like Muhammad, just because he claims he was sent by God?
The Mormons assure us that God was human like us once upon a time, and evolved into His divine state, and that the same sort of evolution awaits us. Through celestial marriages made in this life, Mormon couples who have been “sealed” in the Mormon Temple, along with their children, will be gods and goddesses ruling planets, and generating new godly offspring throughout the ages. This view certainly gives a positive spin to the idea of evolution, and may be especially attractive to those who have blissful marriages. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, who clandestinely married 48 wives after wedding his first wife, Emma, serves as a model for this storybook account of the goal of life. But most of us (especially members of the Christian church, which has been allegedly “apostate” for two millennia) might have serious doubts about the credentials of this self-proclaimed prophet—although he certainly had a better record regarding homicide than the Prophet of Islam.
But among the various religious “theories,” in the eyes of the atheist, certainly the most outrageous is the Christian story. Namely, that there is a God who holds the whole created universe in his hand, not only caring for each sparrow that falls from the sky (Mt. 10:29) and clothing the lilies of the field (Mt. 6:28); not only numbering the hairs of the head of each living person (Lk. 12:7); but willing to share his eternal life with each one of the billions who have been born and will be born. And the Christians want us to believe that the Son of this God, the eternal wisdom whose main delight was to be with the “children of men,” impatiently waited for the right moment to be born, so that He could share human life with all its difficulties—poverty, hunger, heat and cold, fatigue, inconveniences, and incredible weakness and suffering—and put fellow humans on the road to their own share in eternal life.
The atheist, hearing this breathtaking account of goodness beyond all expectations, turns in relief to Science, congratulates himself for avoiding such fantasies, and assures anyone willing to listen that it may not be a comforting thought, but “here’s the way things really are”: Out of multiple universes, or even an infinite number of universes, the right conditions developed by chance just for us. In line with the 11 dimensions predicted by M-theory, a version of String theory, the mathematical basis for 4-dimensional spacetime and our universe arose by chance. Gravity itself, according to Stephen Hawking, spontaneously gave rise to the Big Bang. This explosive development received a little help at the right moment from a cosmological principle called “inflation,” which accelerated the expansion of the universe at the right moment. (Alan Guth, the physicist who discovered this principle, observed that it provides a “free lunch” for the universe.) Then, over about 15 billion years, galaxies, groups, clusters, “clouds,” superclusters, supercluster-complexes (“walls”) developed by chance, leading by a fortunate accident to the development of the planet Earth, with just the right position in the Milky Way galaxy to produce carbon-based life from elements cooked up in the stars, and subject to organization by laws like gravity and electromagnetism. Also fortunately, cells developed with DNA instructions leading them to further development. This further development took place through “natural selection,” which depended on favorable mutations (even though mutations are hardly ever favorable). Then, after some fantastically accelerated developments in the Cambrian era, homo sapiens arrived on the scene, who then started to speak, write, read, develop civilizations—and even religions.
However, most humans inconveniently seem to be hardwired to believe that everything has to have a cause. Our common-sense instincts kick in unexpectedly: Something coming from nothing? By chance? And an infinity of chance developments? And a material universe arising somehow from the mathematics of String theory? And don’t we need to account for that law of gravity, which allegedly started the process “spontaneously”?
According to philosophers like Spinoza, Hume and Russell, when we are told that, in lieu of a causal explanation, “it happened by chance,” this simply translates into “we are ignorant of the cause of this thing.”
Charles Darwin himself, in proposing his theory of evolutionary “natural selection,” mentions his agreement with this general principle:
I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature, had been due to “chance.” This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.
Those of us who tenaciously maintain that everything, including the universe itself, has a cause, might consider the “chance and free lunch” scenarios accepted by the atheist as the most incredible and most absurd fairy tale, and find the Christian account more credible, even though it involves an uncaused Cause.
Holding on to the principle of causality, and thinking of the absurd extreme of love that the God of the Christian narrative has gone to, we might be able to agree with the paradoxical exclamation of the third century Christian theologian, Tertullian:
The Son of God was born—something not to be ashamed of, since it is so shameful. And the Son of God died—something completely believable, since it was so unfitting. And, having been buried, he arose—something to be certain of, since it was so impossible!
And, Tertullian might have added, to top it all off—for those who remain faithful, God prepared a final reward consisting of resurrection in a “spiritual” body no longer subject to death, in a new world enlightened not by the sun, but by God Himself.
Why would the Creator want to do this for mortals like you and me—with a special concern for thieves and public sinners and “lost sheep”? The Christian religion offers us a completely absurd extreme of love, transcending all human concepts, and is thus absolutely credible!